Preview: Denver Nuggets hope to continue perfect preseason start vs. Phoenix Suns

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Denver Nuggets (2-0) hope to continue their impressive start to the preseason when they travel to Talking Stick Resort Arena to face the Phoenix Suns.  

Denver’s defense has stood out in the opening two games of its exhibition season, holding opponents to 92.5 points per game (seventh in the NBA), 38.6 percent shooting (fifth) and 25 percent from downtown (second)). And although it is preseason, head coach Michael Malone has to be encouraged by his players’ increased effectiveness in guarding the passing lanes – evidenced by 11.0 steals per contest in the first two games. 

Phoenix (2-1) comes off of a commanding 134-118 win over Portland. Led by new coach Monty Williams, the team is currently averaging 111 points per game and has been solid from downtown as it’s hit 36.6 percent of their attempts (11th). 

Here are three things to keep an eye on heading into Monday’s matchup (8 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE, RADIO: KKSE-FM 92.5): 

Which backcourt will standout?

Ricky Rubio was the Suns’ prized free agent acquisition this summer and the Spanish playmaker should help in freeing up Devin Booker to do what he does best—score. Rubio has played in two of Phoenix’s three preseason games, averaging 7.5 points, 4.0 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 20.4 minutes of action. It is uncertain if the former Jazz guard will play on Monday, especially considering his World Cup-winning run with Denver reserve Juancho Hernangómez this summer. If he and Booker both suit up, it should provide another strong test for the Nuggets’ starting backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. 

The pair have had their bright spots, but also shown rust in the process. Harris hasn’t trailed off from his strong defensive run in the postseason, as he’s averaged 1.5 steals per game and held his own against CJ McCollum last Tuesday. It’s the other side of the floor where he needs to get back to speed, as he’s averaging 4.5 turnovers a game and shooting 33.3 percent overall. Murray has also played his part in getting steals (1.5 per game), but he’s yet to make a three-pointer with just two attempts in preseason. The fourth-year guard made light of it at Saturday’s practice. 

“It’s only two games, if it’s 82 games and I’ve only taken two threes than that’s a problem,” Murray quipped. 

He added, “Guys are just getting into their rhythms. Everyone’s playing…we’re getting used to the offense. We’re trying to get ready for 11 days [from now for the season opener].”

All eyes on Malik

Malik Beasley has been the talk of the Nuggets in training camp and preseason and for good reason. The 22-year-old is averaging 14.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 52.6 percent in 19.5 minutes per game. 

Beasley is known for his athleticism and three-point shooting, but he’s showing a more well-rounded offensive game in the preseason. He revealed in a few interviews that he focused on dribbling with his left hand, his offhand, to be a better ball handler and it’s paid off in the Nuggets’ first two exhibitions. Beasley is focused on proving he’s more than just a three-point threat. 

“I just want to be known as a killer [on the court],” Beasley told reporters Sunday. “Whether that’s shooting threes or dunking on someone. As long as I get the job done and get wins, that’s all that matters to me.” 

Size vs. Size

The battle in the backcourt won’t be the only interesting matchup. Two of the NBA’s more offensively-skilled centers could face each other if Nikola Jokić and DeAndre Ayton play Monday. 

Ayton was the No. 1 selection in the 2018 NBA Draft and averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds on 58.5 percent shooting. Ayton is a throwback-style player, relying on shots within seven feet from the basket. He took exactly four threes last season. The key for the Nuggets will be making sure he doesn’t get looks in his comfort zone. On shots taken outside of 10 feet, he shoots less than 16 percent. Still, Ayton is currently averaging 14 points and eight rebounds on 63.6 percent shooting in the preseason. The Nuggets will likely use a variety of defenders on the second-year center, with Jokić, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant taking turns on guarding him. 

Jokić made his preseason debut last Thursday and quietly dropped a double-double in the win against the Clippers, going for 10 points and 11 rebounds in 22 minutes. Ayton could have issues guarding the Serbian due to the Nuggets star being able to hit mid-to-long range shots. 

Last season, Ayton averaged 20 points and 11.7 rebounds against the Nuggets, while Jokić averaged 27 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists against the Suns.

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

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