Preview: Denver Nuggets look to get back on track against Jazz

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Despite missing four starters on the second night of a back-to-back, the Denver Nuggets fought hard until the final minutes of a 125-115 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers Thursday.

The Nuggets (45-24) will look to right the ship Saturday afternoon as they take on another division rival in the Utah Jazz, who will be wrapping up a back-to-back of their own. Although Michael Porter Jr. continued to impress with a 27-point, 12-rebound double-double, Denver’s shorthanded rotation couldn’t keep up with Damian Lillard’s 45-point scoring outburst.

After holding out Paul Millsap for rest purposes, the Nuggets should be a little closer to full strength against Utah.

The Jazz (43-26) enter Saturday’s game in sixth place of the Western Conference standings. Utah held out Rudy Gobert from Friday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, while several other key players, including Donovan Mitchell, missed the game due to injury. Their status for Saturday’s game isn’t known at this point.

Denver won the first two games of the season series, including a memorable win on the road in Utah with only seven players taking the court.

Here are three storylines to watch for on Saturday.

Can the Nuggets defend the 3-point line?

A major takeaway from Denver’s games in the bubble has been the team’s struggles in defending the 3-point line. In Thursday’s loss to Portland, the Nuggets gave up 23 made 3-pointers as defensive lapses and breakdowns led to easy looks from beyond the arc for the Trail Blazers.

If that continues Saturday, it could be a recipe for disaster. Utah ranks ninth in the frequency of shot attempts coming from deep and an even more impressive second in 3-point percentage, having shot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc this season.

The Jazz also thrive in generating quality looks from the corners, as 11.1 percent of their shot attempts have come from those areas of the floor (Utah has shot 41.4 percent on such shots, good for third in the league). The Nuggets give up a good amount of corner threes to opponents, ranking 24th in the league in their opponent’s frequency of corner 3-point attempts.

If Utah can break Denver’s defense down and exploit the corners, the Nuggets will likely face an uphill battle to victory.

Can Jokić continue to dominate Utah?

In Denver’s two victories over the Jazz this season, Nikola Jokić has simply been unstoppable. The Serbian big man has averaged 29 points, 12.5 rebounds and 10 assists per game against Utah this season, and he has connected on 58.1 percent of his shots in those games.

Jokić’s triple-double (30 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists) was perhaps his best performance of the season, and if the two-time All-Star is locked in, the Nuggets have a chance in any game.

It also helps Denver that Jokić has begun to establish real on-court chemistry with Porter Jr., forming a dynamic scoring punch to carry the Nuggets’ offense while key starters such as Jamal Murray and Will Barton III remain out.

Will Porter Jr. continue his hot play?

Speaking of Porter Jr., the rookie forward has been the talk of the bubble with his impressive play over the past three games.

The 22-year-old has posted three-consecutive double-doubles of at least 27 points and 12 rebounds. Porter Jr.’s ability to score from all three areas of the floor has given Denver a focal point on offense alongside Jokić.

At 6’10”, Porter Jr. creates plenty of mismatches for opposing defenses, and the Nuggets will need all the points he can contribute on Saturday.

Saturday’s game will tip at 1:30 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude TV and TNT (Radio: KKSE 950AM).

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