Preview: Denver Nuggets end road trip against Indiana Pacers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

If there’s one thing that the Denver Nuggets have taught the rest of the NBA, it’s that they should never be counted out. From making two 3-1 series comebacks in the 2020 postseason to their impressive record on the second night of a back-to-back, the Nuggets routinely find a way to surprise opponents, fans, and analysts.

In Milwaukee on Tuesday, Denver did just that in a 128-97 dismantling of the Bucks, despite missing six players and coming off a game less than 24 hours prior in Chicago. Nikola Jokić continued his MVP campaign with 37 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds, while Jamal Murray chipped in 24 points. The Nuggets had six players in double-figures in total, using a complete team effort on both ends of the floor to stop Milwaukee’s winning streak.

MORE: Three takeaways from win over Bucks

Now the focus shifts to the Indiana Pacers, as Denver (20-15) looks to sweep its four-game road trip and head into the All-Star break with plenty of momentum.

Heading into their Wednesday night clash with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers had lost four of their last five games, which dropped them to 15-18 on the season, good for ninth in the Eastern Conference. Injuries have sunk Indiana, with notable players such as T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert out indefinitely.

These two teams split the season series in 2019-20, which isn’t surprising considering that the all-time series is tied at 46 wins apiece.

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

FACUNDO CAMPAZZO – HEALTH AND SAFETY PROTOCOLS. OUT.

R.J. HAMPTON – HEALTH AND SAFETY PROTOCOLS. OUT.

MARKUS HOWARD – HEALTH AND SAFETY PROTOCOLS. OUT.

PAUL MILLSAP – LEFT KNEE SPRAIN. OUT.

GARY HARRIS – LEFT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

JAMYCHAL GREEN – LEFT SHOULDER SPRAIN. OUT.

TUNE IN: 6 p.m. MT, Altitude TV and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Myles Turner

A good portion of the credit for Indiana’s success this season can be placed on the team’s 11th-ranked defense, which has been anchored by Turner, who is submitting a Defensive Player of the Year worthy season.

The 24-year-old big man is leading the league with 3.4 blocks per game and the Pacers’ defense has been 8.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor this season. Turner has become one of the best rim protectors in the league, which is reflected in the numbers. When Turner has been on the floor this year, opponents have shot 8.8 percent worse from within four feet of the rim.

Luckily for Jokić, he doesn’t rely on scoring inside the paint to get his points or generate offense for Denver. In fact, only 32 percent of Jokić’s shot attempts this season have come at the rim, whereas 49 percent have come from the mid-range and 19 percent have come from beyond the arc (per Cleaning the Glass).

Considering that the Serbian All-Star is coming off a back-to-back set in which he combined for 76 points, 24 rebounds, and 20 assists on 62.7 percent shooting from the field, it may not matter who is defending Jokić during this dominant stretch of play.

Attack the offensive glass

After being one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league in recent seasons, the Nuggets have dipped ever so slightly, currently ranking eighth in offensive rebound percentage this season at 27.7 percent.

However, Thursday’s matchup against Indiana could be the perfect opportunity to climb back up the leaderboard. The Pacers rank 23rd in opponent offensive rebound percentage, allowing teams to grab offensive rebounds on 26.3 percent of their missed shots. Although Turner is an elite shot-blocker, he hasn’t been an overwhelming presence on the glass throughout his career and is currently averaging 6.5 rebounds per game this season.

If Denver can attack the offensive glass early and often on Thursday to generate second-chance opportunities, it may go a long way in securing a victory over a Pacers team that will be on the second night of a back-to-back.

Crowd the paint on defense

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana has varied its attack on the offensive end and the changes are eye-popping.

The Pacers’ main goal on offense is to get inside the paint and attack the rim at a staggering rate. Nearly 43 percent of Indiana’s shot attempts this season have come at the rim, which comfortably tops the league. For reference, the league average is 33.4 percent of shot attempts.

Indiana staunchly avoids mid-range shots, ranking 29th in the frequency of shot attempts coming from that area of the floor, while 34.9 percent of the Pacers' shot attempts have come from deep this season, which ranks 19th.

Although Indiana has struggled to finish around the rim (60.2 percent from within four feet of the basket, which ranks 24th in the league), Denver must prioritize showing multiple defenders in the paint to make life difficult for the Pacers.

Numbers as of Wednesday, March 3.

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