Preview: Denver Nuggets seek first win of 2020 against the Pacers in Indianapolis

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Nuggets (23-10) hope to start off the new decade on a positive note at Bankers Life Fieldhouse when they face the Pacers (22-12) Thursday. 

Denver had a disappointing end to 2019, suffering a 130-104 defeat in Houston against the Rockets. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone publicly questioned the team’s commitment to defense after the game. Still, the Nuggets have to be largely satisfied with their end-of-the-year showing. They went 8-2 in their last 10 games and their win percentage is slightly ahead of where it was at this stage last year when they won 54 games. With that said, the team faces a tough test against one of the NBA’s elite defenses. 

Indiana lost Bojan Bogdanović and Thaddeus Young in the offseason and is still waiting for the return of All-Star Victor Oladipo, but it remains one of the East’s best teams due to its physical and hounding defense. The Pacers are seventh in defensive rating at 105 and are only allowing teams to shoot 43.7 percent from the field (sixth in the NBA). They hold teams to just 105.4 points per game, which is good for fifth in the league. 

On an interesting note, the Nuggets and Pacers are dead even in their all-time NBA season series at 45-45. Last season, the teams split their two games against each other with both stealing a win at the opposition’s arena. 

TUNE IN: TV: ALTITUDE, RADIO: KKSE 950AM

Projected Starters: Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Michael Porter, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

Here are the storylines to keep an eye on: 

Defense, defense and more defense

Malone is a defense-first coach and the Nuggets’ improvement on that end is a significant role behind their rise as Western Conference contenders. During the first two months of the season, Denver went 13-4 largely due to its stingy approach in guarding opponents as evidenced by its league-leading 101.9 defensive rating. In December, however, the team was 10-6 with its defensive rating ballooning up to 108.9 (16th in the NBA during that stretch). 

While the offense is trending in the right direction, going up from 106.8 (18th) to 112.8 (sixth in December) in that span, Malone will be seeking better balance from his players. Against the Rockets, the Nuggets gave up 130 points, which is the most they’ve allowed since a 135-130 loss to the Nets in Brooklyn last season. Indiana isn’t as prolific of a team as Houston, putting 109.1 points per game (18th), but Denver can’t allow the home team to get off to a strong start. The Pacers are 15-3 at home and are holding visitors at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to just 10.3 made threes per game (third for hosting teams). 

Slowing down the Pacers’ well-balanced offense

Indiana lost some talented players this summer but made several underrated moves to remain one of the top teams in the East. The additions of T.J. Warren and Malcolm Brogdon has given Nate McMillan some additional grit in the backcourt and frontcourt along with important contributions on offense. The pair along with Domantas Sabonis, who is the midst of a breakout campaign, are averaging a combined 53 points per game. 

Brodgon, who is averaging a career-high 17.7 points a game, is listed as doubtful for the contest. If he does miss the game, Denver could still face some problems on the perimeter with Oladipo fill-in Jeremy Lamb and backup point guard Aaron Holiday. With Oladipo sidelined until at least the end of January, Lamb has admirably averaged 13.7 points per game on 44.5 percent shooting. 

In order to slow the Pacers down, the Nuggets will need to control the paint. Indiana is 13th in the league in paint scoring at 47.6 points per game. If Denver can make it difficult to score on a close-range, it would force the Pacers to shoot more long-range shots – an area they aren’t comfortable with. Although Indiana is sixth in three-point shooting percentage at 36.6, it only shoots 27.9 attempts a game from downtown (second to last in the NBA).

Can Monte build on a strong showing?

There weren’t many positives against the Rockets on New Year’s Eve, but Monte Morris’ season-high 18 points provided some encouraging signs.

The Nuggets fourth-year reserve guard finished the contest with 18 points on 8 of 12 shooting, four assists and three steals. Morris is one of the best decision-makers in the NBA, sitting second in the league in assists to turnover ratio at 5.3. If Morris can continue to improve with his scoring output, he's currently averaging 7.1 points per game, it would be an important step forward in his development.

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