Preview: Denver Nuggets look to end road trip with win over Hawks

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Following two disappointing losses in Boston and Washington, D.C., earlier this week, the Denver Nuggets got back on track in a comfortable 120-103 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.

Of course, the talk was centered around Jamal Murray’s 50-point performance, which marked a new regular-season career-high for the 23-year-old guard. Murray scored those 50 points on 84 percent shooting from the field and knocked down eight 3-pointers in the dominant display, continuing a trend of strong performances from the Canadian over the past week.

MORE: Three takeaways from win over Cavaliers

Denver (16-13) now wraps up the east coast road trip in Atlanta against the Hawks. Atlanta (12-17) has disappointed compared to preseason expectations, but a lot of that has to do with injuries and absences from key offseason additions such as Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo.

The Hawks are just 2-8 in their last 10 games and have fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture as they continue to navigate several injuries to some of their rotation players.

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

GREG WHITTINGTON – LEFT KNEE ARTHROSCOPY. OUT.

P.J. DOZIER – RIGHT HAMSTRING STRAIN. OUT.

PAUL MILLSAP – LEFT KNEE SPRAIN. OUT.

GARY HARRIS – LEFT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

JAMYCHAL GREEN –LEFT SHOULDER SPRAIN. OUT.

TUNE IN: 5:30 p.m. MT, Altitude TV and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Jamal Murray vs. Trae Young

If there’s one constant throughout Atlanta’s season so far, it has been the play of Trae Young. With averages of 26.5 points and 9.3 assists per game, Young is putting up an All-Star caliber season as the focal point of the Hawks’ offense.

Denver is certainly aware of how Young can take over a game, which is exactly what he did when the Hawks visited the Nuggets in 2019. In that 125-121 Atlanta victory, Young had 42 points and 11 assists, dazzling with his ball-handling, playmaking, and shooting abilities.

One key in attempting to limit Young’s effectiveness is to avoid putting him on the foul line. The 22-year-old guard ranks second in the league with 10.2 free throw attempts per game this season and will use a variety of tricks and moves to generate easy points at the charity stripe.

Meanwhile, Murray has come alive for the Nuggets recently, scoring at least 22 points in the past five contests. After an inconsistent start to the season, Denver’s lead guard has been playing at an All-Star level throughout the majority of February, highlighted by his historic 50-point performance in Cleveland. With these two dynamic scoring guards facing off on Sunday, expect plenty of buckets and fireworks.

Keep Atlanta off the charity stripe

As mentioned earlier, Young is a master at drawing fouls. As a result, the Hawks as a team thrive at the free-throw line, as they currently lead the league in free throw rate (24.8). Free throw rate represents how many free throws a team made per 100 field-goal attempts.

Denver has struggled at times defensively when it comes to avoiding fouls. The Nuggets rank 20th in opponent free throw rate at 20.1, which could open up some opportunities for Young and the Hawks to take advantage.

Considering Atlanta’s struggles to make shots this season (ranking 22nd in effective field-goal percentage), look for the Hawks to continue to probe the paint and search out contact to generate some easy offense.

Attack the basket on offense

Atlanta’s defense has struggled this season. Many of those struggles are a result of putting opponents on the free-throw line, not forcing turnovers, and struggling to end possessions with defensive rebounds.

When looking at the shot distribution against the Hawks this season, one area of the floor stands out and that is at the basket. Atlanta ranks 24th in opponent frequency of shot attempts coming within four feet of the rim at 35.5 percent. Teams have shot right around league average from that area of the floor against the Hawks this season, but the Nuggets have been an elite finishing team.

Denver currently ranks sixth in the league with a 66.6 percent field-goal percentage at the rim this season, which should encourage more drives to the basket. The Nuggets sit at 21st in the frequency of shot attempts coming from that area this season.

One thing to keep in mind is that Clint Capela has been a solid rim protector this season, as teams have shot 5.8 percent worse at the basket when the Swiss big man has been on the floor, while he is also averaging 2.2 blocks per game.

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