Preview: Denver Nuggets return home to conclude season series against Rockets

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer

The Denver Nuggets will return to Denver for a one-off home game against a familiar foe Sunday afternoon. Following the Nuggets’ gusty win against the New Orleans Pelicans Friday, they now hope to build on that when they take on the Houston Rockets for the second time this week.

Denver (31-14) continues to deal with several key injuries to Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. While all three are projected to miss more time, the Nuggets received a boost from Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. Friday when both returned from injury. Nikola Jokić continues to lead the way for Denver, averaging 24.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game over the last 10 games.

Houston (28-16) has struggled recently, as it is just 2-4 in the past six games. Most of those struggles have coincided with a major slump from James Harden, who has only averaged 29 points per game in January on 35.6 percent shooting from the field and 25.2 percent from beyond the arc. For reference, the 2017-18 MVP averaged at least 36.8 points per game in each of the first three months of the season. Harden suffered a thigh bruise in Houston’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday.

The Rockets have won the past two meetings in the season series, while Denver won the first matchup in Denver. Sunday’s game presents an opportunity for the Nuggets to tie the season series, making it crucial given the potential battle for playoff-seeding in March and April.

Here are three keys to Sunday’s game:

Focus on limiting Westbrook

When it comes to the Rockets, the attention is on their dynamic backcourt. While it is nearly impossible to stop both Harden and Russell Westbrook, Denver may want to focus on limiting Westbrook’s impact given his recent strong play. Over the past 10 games, the 2016-17 MVP has averaged 31.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game on 53.1 percent shooting from the field.

In three games against Denver this season, Westbrook has averaged 27 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. Given Harden’s shooting slump and nagging injury, limiting Westbrook’s impact could force him to do more than he can handle on Sunday, thus limiting the potential of Houston’s offense.

Can Porter Jr. exploit Houston’s forwards?

Porter Jr. has only played 11 minutes against the Rockets this season, with all of those minutes coming on New Year’s Eve before he fully cemented himself as the sixth man off the bench. Throughout January, Denver’s rookie forward has received more playing time and his production has certainly warranted that.

Porter Jr. has played at least 20 minutes in nine games this season. In those nine games, the 21-year-old has averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game on a 70.1 true shooting percentage. Given Houston’s lack of true forward-size players, Porter Jr. will likely have another opportunity to add to those numbers on Sunday.

Attack the offensive glass

In their win against the Pelicans Friday, the Nuggets shot just 37.7 percent from the field. Normally, a team that struggles that much from the field loses, but when you grab 24 offensive rebounds, you certainly give yourself another chance at victory. Despite being undermanned in recent games, Denver’s forwards have stepped up on the boards, which has led to the Nuggets taking over the top spot in the league in offensive rebound percentage.

On the other end, the Rockets are a below-average defensive rebounding team, as they rank 20th in opponent offensive rebound percentage. Although Denver will once again be undermanned on Sunday against an opponent that has given them trouble in recent years, if they can create a mismatch on the offensive glass it will go a long way in securing a big victory.

Sunday’s game will tip at 1:30 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude and NBA TV (Radio: 92.5FM).


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