Preview: Denver Nuggets open seeding games schedule against Heat

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer

The time has finally come. Mile High Basketball is back.

From now on, when the Denver Nuggets take the court inside the NBA bubble in Orlando Saturday, the games will count. Denver begins its seeding games schedule with a matchup against the Miami Heat, a team fighting for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

The buildup to Saturday’s game has certainly not been smooth for the Nuggets, who have just recently been able to enjoy a full complement of players in the bubble. For two of the team’s three scrimmages, head coach Michael Malone has had to use lineups featuring four or sometimes even five big men on the court at the same time.

“With all our pieces back together, I think we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with,” Monte Morris said following Wednesday’s practice. “We’re hungry and we’re ready to show the world what we’re made of.”

Those scrimmages provided mixed results for Malone and the Nuggets, who saw some impressive performances from players such as Troy Daniels and Bol Bol, but the team struggled mightily when it came to taking care of the ball and defending the 3-point line.

Miami enters Saturday’s contest fourth in the Eastern Conference. Although the Heat will likely find it difficult to catch the third-seeded Boston Celtics who own a 2 ½ game lead in the standings, Miami will be trying to hold off the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers, who each sit two games back of the Heat.

Similar to Denver, Miami’s focus on offense is on ball movement. Therefore, it’s no surprise that these two teams rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in assists per game this season.

“I think the connection and the ball movement is still evident with this group,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This group really enjoys sharing the game, sharing the ball with each other and trying to help each other play well. That’s a really special quality about this ball club.”

Here are three storylines to watch in Saturday’s contest.

Denver’s 3-point defense will be key

It’s one thing to struggle defending behind the arc against teams that don’t attempt many threes or struggle to hit consistently from deep. It’s another thing to struggle to defend the 3-pointer against the Heat, who rank 10th in 3-pointers attempted per game (34.8) and first in percentage at 38.3 percent.

Miami’s rotation features seven players that have shot over 36 percent on at least two 3-point attempts per game this season, headlined by Duncan Robinson, who has established himself as perhaps the game’s best shooter. Robinson has connected on 44.8 percent of his 3-pointers this season and is attempting 8.4 threes per game.

If Denver’s struggles carry over from the scrimmages, the defense will suffer mightily against Miami. The Nuggets’ frontcourt will also be tested in this regard, as Miami deploys Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard in its frontcourt rotation, two bigs that can stretch the floor well.

“Our closeouts, we have our hands down as opposed to having high hands,” Malone said Wednesday. “We have had poor discipline when it comes to running shooters off (the 3-point line), and then our communication. If we’re switching pick-and-rolls, the talk isn’t early enough and we’re putting two on the ball, leaving shooters open.”

During the regular season, Denver ranked third in opponent 3-point percentage at just 34.7 percent, but the Nuggets gave up a healthy number of attempts to teams. Denver ranked 20th in opponent 3-point attempt frequency, as 36 percent of their shots came from beyond the arc against the Nuggets.

Where will Denver’s offense come from?

Unlike in previous seasons, Miami’s defense hasn’t been the impenetrable force that it once was. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Heat rank 12th in defensive rating this season and struggle in certain key areas.

Miami struggles to force turnovers, gives up plenty of looks from beyond the arc and has allowed teams to finish at a high rate around the rim. Although Denver’s offense hasn’t been set up to exploit these areas of the floor, there is reason to believe that the Nuggets can score efficiently in Saturday’s contest.

Although Denver only ranks 19th in the frequency of shot attempts coming at the rim, the Nuggets have converted 64.8 percent of those shots, ranking ninth in the league. Given that teams have shot 65.7 percent at the rim against Miami this season (placing them 25th in the league in defending the basket), Denver’s guards and Nikola Jokić should be able to find a comfort zone inside the paint.

Although the Nuggets’ offense isn’t centered around the 3-point line, Miami ranks last in the league in the frequency of shots its opponents attempt from beyond the arc. 40.1 percent of opponent shot attempts against the Heat this season have come from deep. If the Nuggets get hot from beyond the arc, that could propel the offense to a big day.

Who will be available for Malone and the Nuggets?

When it comes down to it, these two teams are very evenly matched on paper. Both teams rank in or around the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating and both teams rely on ball movement on offense.

However, the Nuggets may simply be too shorthanded Saturday if players such as Gary Harris and Will Barton III don’t suit up. Malone revealed in Wednesday’s media availability that those players have been rested from recent practices and when asked about what the team’s rotation will look like in Saturday’s contest, Malone had to step back and reveal that he hasn’t been able to plan that out given the lack of healthy bodies.

Denver has had several key rotation players join the team over the past week, which means there hasn’t been much practice time to reintegrate them. If players have to sit out Saturday’s contest, reduce their minutes, or aren’t in sync with teammates throughout the course of the game, Miami will have an advantage in the first seeding game.

Saturday’s contest will tip at 11 a.m. MT and will air on Altitude TV and ESPN.


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