Preview: Denver Nuggets hope to continue recent success vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Nuggets (15-8) rebounded from a three-game losing streak in dominant fashion against the Trail Blazers Thursday and will be looking for more of the same against another Northwest Division opponent when they host the Thunder (11-13) Saturday.

Despite trading away two All-NBA players in Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Oklahoma City has remained competitive thanks to the arrivals of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and former Nuggets star Danilo Gallinari. The Thunder have won five of their last seven games with quality victories against Minnesota, Utah and Portland.

Denver enters the second of its five-game homestand, its longest stretch at Pepsi Center this season. Michael Malone’s team showed positive strides on offense against Portland Thursday, with six players having double-digit scoring outings. The Nuggets will want to build on their 9-3 record at home, currently tied for fourth in the Western Conference. Denver has won its last six games against Oklahoma City and swept last year’s season series.

TICKETS: OKC Thunder vs. Denver Nuggets 12/14

Here are the key storylines to watch out for:

Avoid a slow start

The Thunder have solid players on their roster, but the team doesn’t stand out on either side of the court.

On offense, the group scores 107.8 points per game (21st) and has an offensive rating of 107.1 (20th). The team is better on defense, with a 106.6 defensive rating (13th) and holding opponents to 107.2 points per game (10th).  This is a group that largely plays up to opponents and finds ways to scrap results. It is pivotal for Denver to impose its brand of basketball from the opening tip-off.

Oklahoma City is 4-8 on the road and that’s largely because its offense struggling away from the Chesapeake Energy Arena. On the road, the Thunder’s offensive rating dips to 103.8 and is second to last in assists (20.2) – despite having two great passing guards in Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander.

If the Nuggets get off to a hot start early, this could be a relatively straightforward contest.

Give Nikola the rock

After some early-season offensive struggles, Nikola Jokić appears to be back to his best after an impressive three-game stretch.

In Jokić’s last three games, he’s averaging 19.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 7.7 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 33 percent from downtown. The latter category has been part of the catalyst in the Serbian’s recent uptick. Before the Nuggets’ game against the Celtics on Dec. 6, Jokić hadn’t hit a three-pointer in six games and averaged 13.5 points during that period. When Jokić knocks down shots from behind the arc, it opens up the Nuggets’ offense as centers are forced to guard him outside, opening the lane in the paint.

Although the Thunder have seen a lot of changes to their roster, Jokić will be matched up against a familiar foe in Steven Adams. Last season, Jokić averaged 24.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists against Oklahoma City.  

 

Backcourt battle

Another night, another elite point guard for the Nuggets to go up against

Denver is in a stretch where it has been matched up against Kemba Walker, Spencer Dinwiddie, Ben Simmons and Damian Lillard in its last four games. They go up against a future Hall of Famer in Paul on Saturday.

The Thunder’s lead guard is averaging 15.7 points, 6.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 44.9 percent on the floor. Paul isn’t putting the gaudy assist numbers he used to as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, where he put up 9.8 dimes a game, but he is seventh in the league in assist to turnover ratio (3.7). He’s also got some backcourt help with Gilgeous-Alexander – one of the emerging young talents in the league.

Jamal Murray’s Canada teammate is averaging 18.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting 43.0 percent. Gilgeous-Alexander trade to the Thunder has opened up scoring opportunities for him as he’s taking almost double the amount of shots he attempted last season (from 8.7 to 15.5 a game).

Neither Gilgeous-Alexander (35.4 percent) or Paul (35.9) is a great three-point shooter, so the key will be stopping their penetrations and cutting off kick-outs to Gallinari, who is shooting 39.9 percent from downtown.

 

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