Game Preview: Denver Nuggets host surging Miami Heat

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

After escaping with a much-needed win over the Orlando Magic over the weekend, the Denver Nuggets will return home for a two-game homestand starting Tuesday. However, there will be no room for a letdown given the quality of opponents stepping into Pepsi Center this week.

Before defending their home floor against the (as of now) undefeated Philadelphia 76ers Friday, Denver will face the red-hot Miami Heat on Tuesday.

Miami (5-1) is fresh off a 29-point victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday and owns the best net-rating in the entire league at +13.7 (not including garbage time). That impressive net-rating is a result of the Heat having the sixth-ranked offense and top-ranked defense in the league through their first six games of the season.

The Heat have eight players that average double-figures in scoring this season, led by Kendrick Nunn at 19.5 points per game. Miami’s marquee offseason addition was Jimmy Butler, who returned from time off due to the birth of a child and has averaged 14.7 points, 7.3 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 4.3 steals per game over the past three games.

The Nuggets (4-2) split their two-game road trip last week but are still looking for some consistency on both ends of the floor. Jamal Murray has led the way for Denver’s offense with an average of 18.5 points per game. Both Murray and Nikola Jokić have come up big for the Nuggets when it has mattered most. The two leading scorers own net ratings of +13.6 and +19.2 respectively during “clutch” time (when the score is within five points with less than five minutes remaining). That may play a key role in a game that could very well come down to the wire.

Here are some keys to Tuesday’s game:

Transition play could be a deciding factor

Much has been made of the Nuggets’ slow pace to start the season (they currently rank 30th in pace of play). However, Denver’s ability to run and get easy points in transition could prove to be a necessity against Miami, who own the worst turnover percentage in the league as of this writing.

Miami has coughed it up on 18.8 percent of their possessions this season (excluding garbage time), which Denver can capitalize if they look to get out in transition. The Nuggets are around league-average in forcing turnovers (15.5 percent), so there should be ample opportunities to get easy baskets.

However, Denver’s transition defense will have to be up to the task of guarding Miami, who look to push the pace (the Heat are sixth in the league in that regard so far this season). Given that Miami is sixth in the league in forcing turnovers on defense, it will be interesting to see if Denver’s offense can limit their turnovers in order to prevent Miami from getting out in transition. Against New Orleans last week, the Nuggets weren’t ready to defend the Pelicans’ fast-paced style of play and Miami presents a similar challenge for Denver.

Stopping Miami’s balanced attack

As mentioned earlier, although the Heat signed the four-time All-Star in Butler, Miami’s offense operates in a more committee approach. The Heat rank fourth in the league in assists per game this season at 27, while they deploy a very modern offensive approach with a focus on attacking the basket, getting to the free throw line and shooting 3-pointers.

While most elite teams are led by a star player or two on offense, the Heat present a difficult challenge for Michael Malone’s team. Matching up on the defensive end will include key decisions for Malone, especially considering that Miami has shuffled their starting lineup quite a bit early in the season (seven players have started at least two games for the Heat this season).

With seven players averaging over 10 points per game this season, the Heat can attack from all angles of the court. Given their modern shot distribution, effective ball movement and their ability to push the pace, Miami presents the most challenging test for Denver’s defense early in the season.

Getting Jokić on the right track

Denver’s offense has limped out of the gate to start the season, as shots haven’t been falling and the ball hasn’t been moving at the expected rate. A key aspect of Denver’s offensive struggles fall on the team’s go-to option in Jokić, who has averaged 15.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game this season on 56.4 true shooting percentage.

While this Heat team presents a different matchup compared to last season (most notably being that Hassan Whiteside is no longer up front for Miami), Jokić did have success against the Heat last season. In the two games between the team, the Serbian big man averaged 26.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. While Bam Adebayo is extremely skilled and athletic for the center position, he does give up some size to Jokić, who can look to get going early in the post in order to open up Denver’s offense and 3-point shooting.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

Tuesday’s game will tip-off at 7 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude 2 (Radio: 92.5 FM).

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