Preview: Denver Nuggets take on surprising New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Denver Nuggets (4-5) were able to cruise past a shorthanded Sixers team Saturday. The team’s challenge will rise significantly when they head to the Big Apple to face the New York Knicks (5-4).

Culture is everything in sports. For the first time in seemingly decades, the Knicks appear to be the benefactors of it under new head coach Tom Thibodeau. This is a team that is bringing back its identity in the 1990s, focusing on defense and grinding out results. If it sounds familiar, it should.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, a New York native, got his start at the Knicks at the tail end of the franchise’s last consistently-successful era under Jeff Van Gundy. His approach on defense, while modernized, is similar in style to Knicks teams under Van Gundy. With this game being a homecoming and a chance to finally reach .500 for the first time this season, one would imagine this game will have added significance for the Nuggets head coach.

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

TUNE IN: 4 p.m. MT, ALTITUDE

Here are the storylines to watch for:

Getting past the Knicks’ stingy defense

If there is one thing Thibodeau and Malone share in common, it’s their attention to detail and focus on the defensive end. Sunday’s matchup presents a chance for an almost chess-like matchup between two astute tacticians in that area.

Thibodeau’s arrival this offseason in New York sparked a dramatic improvement from the Knicks in the early going of the season. New York is ranked fifth on defense with a 105.5 rating, a huge jump from the last campaign where it was 23rd at 112.4. This improvement is also notable because the Knicks didn’t make wholesale changes after a 21-45 record last year. Outside of Obi Toppin, who has been sidelined for all but one game due to injury, and Austin Rivers, this is a team that kept the same core.

As of Saturday evening, Denver’s offense continues its torrid start to the season as it remains in second in the league in offense rating. Despite its success, it will have to be crafty in getting past New York. The Knicks are third in opponent field goal percentage (43.4) and second in opponent three-point percentage at 30.1. They are also eighth in rebounding at 47.1 boards a game. If there is one soft spot, it’s in the paint. The group is 15th in the NBA in opponent points per game, giving up 46.7 points per game in that area. With the Nuggets ranked fifth in points in the paint per game (51.1), they should look to attack the rim early and often.

Key Matchup: Paul Millsap vs. Julius Randle

Julius Randle is in the midst of a career year and in some ways, is mirroring Paul Millsap during his time in Atlanta.

In the Knicks' first nine games of the season, Randle is averaging 22.6 points, 12 rebounds, and 7.3 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field. Similar to Millsap, Randle didn’t enter the league as a three-point shooter but developed that range after several years in the NBA. This season he’s a respectable 36.4 percent shooter from downtown. Where Randle has really impressed this season is with his passing. The seventh-year forward has averaged 2.9 assists through his career, but he’s putting up more than double that per game this campaign. He’s actually the Knicks leader in dimes so far.

Millsap, 35, is in his 15th season and remains an effective presence for the Nuggets in long-range shooting and defensive awareness. He’s is currently shooting 44 percent from three and is averaging 11.3 points and 4.0 in just 24.9 minutes per game. Considering Millsap’s veteran savvy and floor spacing, this could be a fun matchup to watch.

Win the battle of the benches

One area where the Knicks have struggled this season is getting production off the bench. Although Rivers has stood out, overall the group hasn’t made much of an impact. The Knicks rank 21st in bench plus/minus at -1.5 and 27th in points per game (31.0). While the Nuggets’ reserves got off to a slow start, JaMychal Green’s return has reinvigorated the group.

On the season, the Nuggets are 23rd in bench plus/minus, but that number has risen in the last four games. In that span, the Nuggets reserves are 11th in the league in that stat (1.1) and are 12th in points per game (38.5). In a game that figures to be cagey, depth could be the difference-maker for Denver.

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