Preview: Denver Nuggets ring in the New Year against Phoenix Suns

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

The past year was largely positive for the Denver Nuggets (1-3) and they hope to move past some recent struggles against the Phoenix Suns (3-1) on New Year’s Day at Ball Arena. 
Buoyed by the addition of Chris Paul, the Suns are one of the hottest teams in NBA and currently sit second in the Western Conference standings. The 10-time All-Star has had an immediate impact in Phoenix, providing much-needed leadership to a young team and of course, incredible playmaking. He’s fifth in the league in assists per game at 9.5. 
The Nuggets enter Friday’s game with an incredible playmaker of their own, as Nikola Jokić is first in the league in assists at 13.5 per game. Offense hasn’t been the issue for Denver, which ranks sixth in the league with a rating of 113.8. It is the other end that has raised some concerns. The Nuggets are 28th in the NBA (as of Thursday afternoon) in defensive rating at 116.7 and are giving up 120.3 points an outing (23rd). Hopefully, 2021 gives the team a chance to right the ship. 
“Discipline, effort, energy all have to be a lot higher than they have been in the last four games,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said Thursday. 

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić
Injury report: 
Probable: Jamal Murray, right elbow contusion 
Questionable: JaMychal Green, left calf strain
OUT: Greg Whittington, left knee sprain
Here are the storylines to watch for: 
Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Deandre Ayton
Paul and Devin Booker aren’t the only keys to the Suns’ hot start. Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft, has also made a solid impact on offense and the boards. 
Ayton’s overall scoring has dipped, going from 18.2 points per game to 11.5 this season, but the Nuggets want to avoid being the team that allows him to recapture his best in the early going of the season. A lot of Ayton’s struggles have come off timing in pick and rolls, but he is still shooting 52.8 percent from the floor. He has also improved defensively while grabbing 11.8 boards per game. The Nuggets will have their work cut out for them in keeping Ayton quiet in that area. 
Nikola Jokić is off to arguably the best start of his still young NBA career, averaging career highs in points (24.5), assists (13.5), and rebounds (11.5). The center is also shooting the ball incredibly well, hitting 62.5 percent on field goals and 40 percent on threes. The key for the Nuggets' focal point will be limiting turnovers. He is currently averaging 6.0 turnovers a contest. While some of it comes down to the number of touches he gets on the ball, which is currently first at 113, it would be ideal if he could be closer to his career average of 2.6. Still, the Nuggets can’t complain with another MVP-caliber season from their leading big man. 

Defense, defense, defense!
This has been written in this space a lot, but in order for the Nuggets to get back on track, they have to return to their identity of years past. Michael Malone is a defensive coach and his mantra has guided the Nuggets to 146 wins and a trip to the Western Conference finals last season. Chemistry has played a role as the Nuggets have tried to integrate several new faces into their rotation, but the players and coaches have also pointed to effort as part of the problem. 
“It’s up to us to get out there and figure it out. Twenty-ninth in the league in defense just sounds horrible,” Paul Millsap said Thursday. “It’s something I take pride in, I know it’s something coach [Michael] Malone takes pride in, it’s something a lot of guys in this team take a lot of pride in in not being last on defense.” 
“Most of the time, it’s just a lack of energy. Once we make our minds up that we want to be a good defensive team, that’s when we become it.”  
Malone pointed to a spirited practice Thursday as a sign of progress and several Nuggets players agreed. 
“We came in locked in, we had a lot of energy,” Gary Harris explained.
Own the rim and boards
The Suns’ recent turnaround under Paul and head coach Monty Williams is evident on defense. The team jumped from 29th in defensive rating in the 2018-19 season to No. 1 so far in 2020-21. This is a team that has size and mobility and a star in Paul who communicates well in that area. 
Still, there are some weaknesses the Nuggets can exploit. The Suns are first in three-point defense, holding their opponents to just 25.5 percent shooting, but they struggle in guarding two pointers at 56.8 percent (24th). Two areas where they’ve had trouble is defending the paint, where they allow 50 points a game (18th), and conceding second-chance points at 11.8 per contest (12th). With Phoenix being a below-average rebounding team, 18th in defensive boards (34.8) and offensive boards (9.0), Denver should look to post up early and often and attack the glass relentlessly. JaMychal Green’s potential return could be a big boost in that area. 


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