Preview: Denver Nuggets return home to face Atlanta Hawks

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Last week brought difficult situations for the Denver Nuggets to navigate. The annual NBA trade deadline always creates stress within locker rooms, and with the Nuggets making two trades to add Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee to the roster, it also saw a key player such as Gary Harris depart for the Orlando Magic.

The Nuggets had to deal with the emotional aftermath from Thursday’s deadline in their 113-108 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans Friday night, a game in which Denver trailed by as many as 14 points. Nikola Jokić provided yet another MVP-caliber performance with 37 points, nine assists, and six rebounds, as Denver’s big three of Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. combined for 85 points.

MORE: Takeaways from win over Pelicans

Denver (27-18) now returns to Ball Arena to take on the Atlanta Hawks Sunday. Gordon and McGee are expected to make their Nuggets debuts, which adds a layer of intrigue to Sunday’s contest.

Atlanta (23-22) has turned its season around following the dismissal of head coach Lloyd Pierce. The Hawks had won eight straight following the coaching change that saw Nate McMillan take over, which has propelled Atlanta to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Hawks won the first meeting between these two teams 123-115 back on February 21.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

MONTE MORRIS – LEFT QUADRICEPS STRAIN. OUT.

GREG WHITTINGTON – LEFT KNEE SORENESS. DOUBTFUL.

TUNE-IN: 7 p.m. MT, Altitude TV and NBA TV, 92.5FM

Key matchup: Jamal Murray vs. Trae Young

These two electrifying guards put on a show back in February, with Murray going for 30 points, while Young dropped 35 points and 15 assists on 10-of-19 shooting from the field.

Young’s scoring and efficiency has dipped over the past 10 games, averaging 23.9 points per game on 31.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc. However, the 22-year-old guard continues to provide value through his playmaking, averaging 9.5 assists per game during this stretch.

Meanwhile, Murray has continued to step up his production as March has unfolded. Murray has scored at least 20 points in five-straight contests and is coming off his best playmaking game of the season against New Orleans with a season-high 11 assists.

Murray will be tasked with both making life difficult for Young and continuing to provide production for Denver’s offense. Young has had success against the Nuggets over the past two seasons, so slowing down his production will be key Sunday.

Gordon, McGee expected to make Nuggets debuts

The moment Nuggets fans have been waiting for since Thursday, Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee are expected to take the court in Denver’s Earned uniforms Sunday night, adding a new layer of intrigue for the Mile High squad as the team enters the stretch run of the regular season.

“I pride myself on defense,” Gordon mentioned during his introductory press conference Saturday, later saying that he looks forward to helping the Nuggets by guarding the best players in the league on a nightly basis.

MORE: Gordon, McGee ready for expectations in Denver

Denver’s defense will benefit from Gordon’s versatility guarding on the wing and McGee’s rim protection. The Nuggets have slipped to 23rd in defensive rating in non-garbage time minutes this season, with rim defense and versatility two key areas where the team can improve moving forward.

It remains to be seen just how much both players will play on Sunday as they continue to adjust to their new surroundings and teammates, but this matchup against Atlanta should just be the start of two new fruitful partnerships between the Nuggets and both Gordon and McGee.

Avoid putting Atlanta on the charity stripe

It would be hard to get two offenses that operate at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to drawing fouls.

Denver ranks 30th in free-throw rate (how many free throws a team makes per 100 field-goal attempts) this season, while Atlanta ranks second in the league. In the first meeting between the two teams, the disparity at the charity stripe played a key role, as the Hawks went 27-of-33 from the line compared to just 13-of-16 for the Nuggets.

On the season, Denver has done a good job of avoiding fouls on the defensive end, ranking 13th in opponent free throw rate. Meanwhile, Atlanta has been susceptible in this regard, ranking 22nd in opponent free throw rate.

With Young leading Atlanta’s offense, the Hawks are going to get plenty of trips to the free-throw line. The Nuggets must continue to avoid fouling and be aggressive in searching out contact on the offensive end to keep up with Atlanta.

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