Preview: Denver Nuggets look to sweep season series against Hornets

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer

The Denver Nuggets will look to bounce back following one of the most surprising defeats of the season at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Up next for Denver? Another team going through a transitional, semi-rebuilding season—the Charlotte Hornets.

Denver (40-21) has had several impressive victories over elite teams this season but has also fallen prey to teams towards the bottom of the standings. The Nuggets’ offense is firing on all cylinders recently and has ranked in the top five over the past two weeks, but the defense has slipped to 22nd during that stretch.

Charlotte (21-40) has actually defended well over the past two weeks, ranking ninth in defensive rating during that span, according to Cleaning the Glass. However, the Hornets’ offense continues to struggle and has been dead last in the league during the same stretch.

The Nuggets have won two-straight in this matchup and lead the all-time series with a narrow 30-29 edge.

Here are three keys to Thursday’s game:

Can the defense get back on track?

As mentioned earlier, the Nuggets have struggled mightily on the defensive end since the All-Star break. Over the six games since the break, Denver has ranked 26th in the league in defensive rating and as a result, the defense ranks 13th on the year.

“Our defense right now is non-existent from top to bottom,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “We have to find a way to fix that in a hurry.”

Perhaps a matchup against the 29th-ranked offense in the league can help jumpstart Denver on the defensive end. Charlotte’s 97.4 offensive rating since the All-Star break is nearly seven points per 100 possessions worse than the 29th-ranked offense during that stretch.

Although the Hornets focus on maintaining a modern shot chart (ranking in the top 10 in both frequency of shots attempted at the rim and from beyond the arc), they have struggled to make those shots, resulting in the disappointing offense.

Get back to taking care of business

After the loss to the Warriors, this needs repeating. Given the tough battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference, Denver can’t afford to drop games against non-playoff teams.

The Nuggets currently sit in third in the conference and are a game behind the LA Clippers. Those two teams will match up one last time in two weeks at Pepsi Center, but Denver has to take care of business whenever possible, which includes a game against the 21-40 Hornets.

Charlotte hasn’t thrived at home this season (9-20), while the Nuggets have been impressive, but not dominant on the road (17-12). Following the tough loss to Golden State, look for Denver to come out aggressive in hopes of turning things around.

Denver must value each possession

In what has become an alarming trend, the Nuggets continue to struggle with turnovers since the break. Over the past six games, Denver has coughed it up 16.3 times per game, which ranks 24th in the league.

Prior to the break, the Nuggets ranked sixth in the league in turnovers per game, giving it up just 13.3 times per game. Unfortunately for Denver, the Hornets are no pushover when it comes to forcing turnovers. Charlotte ranks 13th in the league in opponent turnover percentage this season, which ranks higher than Denver’s defense and could cause trouble for a Nuggets’ offense that continues to iron out the remaining kinks ahead of the playoffs.

“I think we just need to be simpler, shoot when you're open, take care of the ball, don't get loose, don't make stupid plays,” Nikola Jokić said following the loss to Golden State.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

Thursday’s game will tip-off at 5 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude TV (Radio: 92.5FM).


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