Preview: Denver Nuggets hope to edge Philadelphia 76ers in battle of the frontcourts

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Nuggets (5-2) hope to push their win streak to three games when the Sixers (5-2) visit Pepsi Center Friday.

Denver has rebounded from a two-game blip last week and is playing some of its best basketball in its last two games. After grinding out a strong defensive performance against the Magic on Sunday, the team clicked on all cylinders against the Heat on Tuesday in a 109-89 rout. Jamal Murray has sparked some of the Nuggets' recent success as he’s averaging 21.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 60 percent in his last two games.

  Philadelphia, alternatively, is on a two-game slide and will likely see star point guard Ben Simmons sidelined for Friday’s matchup with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. After getting off to a 5-0 start, the Sixers dropped games to the Suns and Jazz by a combined seven points. Still, the team is one of the NBA’s elite defensive teams. The Sixers lead the league in steals (11.0) and are seventh in defensive rating at 101.6.

“There’s a lot of length, a lot of defense, a lot of talent,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said about Friday’s game. “They’re a very physical team.”

Offensively, Philadelphia is one of the NBA’s quickest teams as it is seventh in fast-break points (16.0) and pace (105.57). Last year, the Nuggets and Sixers split the season series at 1-1.

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

TUNE IN: 7 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM/950AM

Frontcourt battle

Nikola Jokić vs. Joel Embiid never disappoints, even if Jokić played down the matchup between the All-NBA First and Second Team centers after Thursday’s practice.

“I don’t go up against anybody, I’m just playing basketball,” Jokić said.

That might be the case, but the 24-year-old Serbian has certainly put some of the best numbers of his career against the Cameroonian. Jokić averaged a triple-double last season against the 76ers, going for 29.5 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in the two games. Embiid was sidelined for one of the games, but put up 15 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in a Sixers home win against the Nuggets on Feb. 8.

Inside and midrange shooting could be the key for Jokić to take advantage of the matchup against Embiid, a two-time All-NBA Defensive Second Team selection. In their only game against each other last season, Jokić was 8-of-14 shooting inside the arc – including 4-of-6 inside the paint. He was 1-of-5 from downtown. The battle between the two All-NBA center isn’t the only matchup to look out for.

Two savvy NBA veterans in Paul Millsap and Al Horford will also face off. It’s another reunion of the two men who were an integral part of Atlanta’s surprising 60-win team in 2014-15. Horford has impressed in his first seven games with his new team after three seasons in Boston as he’s averaging 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 blocks. Millsap is likely to play Friday’s matchup after suffering a facial laceration Tuesday. The 34-year-old is averaging 11.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from downtown in 24.1 minutes per game.

Jerami Grant also gets an opportunity to go up against the team who drafted him in the second round in 2014. The Nuggets’ reserve played in Philadelphia for two seasons before being traded to Oklahoma City in 2016 for Ersan İlyasova and a protected draft pick.

Taking care of the rock

Turnovers could be the story in this contest as the Sixers lead the league in steals but also give up the ball a fair amount as well. Philadelphia averages 18.6 turnovers a game, which is tied for the third-worst in that category. In order for Denver to secure a win, the team should look to continue the crisp ball movement it showed against the Heat on Tuesday with a season-high 35 assists.

With Simmons likely out, Raul Neto could see extended minutes as the team’s starter at point guard. The Brazilian has seen limited action this season, but per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 4.3 turnovers a game. If the Nuggets continue their recent defensive strategy of pressing point guards on the full court, that could be an advantage against the 27-year-old.

Living downtown

The Sixers are a great defensive team, but if there is one weakness in Brett Brown’s team, it’s opponent three-point field goal percentage. Philadelphia is allowing its opponents to shoot 37.7 percent from behind the arc, which is bottom five in the NBA (25th). Considering the size and length of the Sixers, it will be imperative for the Nuggets to hit their long-range shots.

The Nuggets are currently 23rd in three-point shots made per game (10.1) and 18th in percentage at 34.8. One player to keep an eye on is Malik Beasley. The 22-year-old is hitting 41.4 percent from downtown but is on a two-game stretch where he hasn’t scored in double figures. That could change on Friday.

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