Preview: Denver Nuggets look to start winning streak vs. Thunder

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

There are just some nights where everything clicks for a team. For the Denver Nuggets, Wednesday turned out to be one of those nights, as they thoroughly defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 133-95.

In that much-needed victory, Denver dished out 31 assists, shot 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, and finished with a 62-42 scoring advantage in the paint. Six players scored in double-figures, and the fourth quarter was highlighted by some jaw-dropping dunks from rookies R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji.

MORE: Three takeaways from win over Cavs

Now Denver must build on Wednesday’s victory with another win against a rebuilding squad. The Oklahoma City Thunder have caught many by surprise with their 10-14 record, given the various injuries and absences the team has had to deal with this season.

However, Oklahoma City seems to have caught some luck in games this season, as the team’s net-rating of negative-6.3 actually ranks 26th in the league. Based on their net rating, the Thunder have won 2.6 games more than expected this season.

Denver comfortably won the first meeting between these two teams this season, a 119-101 victory at Ball Arena back on Jan. 19.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Michael Porter Jr., Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

TUNE IN: 7 p.m. MT, Altitude TV

Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Al Horford

One difference in Friday’s matchup compared to the game back in January will be the presence of Al Horford.

The 34-year-old big man missed the first encounter between these two teams but has been back in the lineup for Oklahoma City in recent weeks, and with improved play. The five-time All-Star has averaged 18.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game over the past seven contests, which includes a scorching 52.8 percent from downtown.

Horford was traded to the Thunder in the offseason and is looking to boost up his value through a larger role on the young Oklahoma City squad.

With his ability to defend down low and score from all areas of the floor, Horford could present a nice challenge for Jokić, who has continued his MVP form in recent games.

The Serbian big man has mixed up dominant scoring performances with dime-dropping, which has included two, 12-assist games over the past five contests. With averages of 26.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game, Jokić will certainly test Horford’s bounce-back season.

Lock in defensively

Oklahoma City has won more than expected to begin this unusual 2020-21 season. However, nearly all of that success has come on the defensive end of the floor, as the Thunder rank 29th in offensive rating (excluding garbage time statistics).

Similar to Wednesday’s matchup against a struggling Cavaliers offense, Friday’s contest provides Denver with a great opportunity to work on ironing out the kinks on defense. The Nuggets held Cleveland to just 95 points on 37.9 percent shooting from the field, including 21.1 percent from beyond the arc.

Although Oklahoma City does a solid job in taking care of the ball, the Thunder rank last in offensive rebound percentage and rarely get to the free-throw line. And while Oklahoma City focuses on creating a modern shot chart of attempts at the rim and from beyond the arc, actually hitting those shots has been a struggle so far this season.

The Thunder rank 30th in 3-point percentage and are around league average in field-goal percentage at the rim. For a Michael Malone-led squad that prides itself on getting stops, Friday’s game presents another opportunity to lock in defensively.

Attack the basket

Oklahoma City’s defense has impressed this season, ranking 15th in the league when excluding garbage-time statistics. This has mainly been a result of the Thunder avoiding fouls, being a solid defensive rebounding squad, and opponents struggling to hit 3-pointers against them.

However, Oklahoma City is vulnerable when it comes to defending the rim. Although the Thunder don’t give up a ton of shot attempts from that area of the floor (33.3 percent of opponent shot attempts have come at the rim against them), when teams do get to the basket against Oklahoma City, they tend to finish.

The Thunder rank 27th in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim, with teams shooting 67.4 percent within four feet of the rim.

Although Denver doesn’t get to the rim a ton (the Nuggets rank 19th in frequency of shot attempts coming within four feet of the basket), there have been no struggles when it comes to finishing those shot attempts. The Nuggets rank eighth in the league at 65.8 percent shooting at the rim this season.

Against an Oklahoma City defense that tends to limit mid-range attempts, Denver’s perimeter players should look to be aggressive in driving downhill, thus opening up drive-and-kick opportunities or easy looks at the basket.

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