Preview: Denver Nuggets resume season against Thunder

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The wait is over! Basketball is back on Friday as the Denver Nuggets continue their quest for success in the Western Conference as they travel to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder.

Denver (38-17) sits in second place in the conference and will look to use the All-Star break as an opportunity to get healthy after dealing with several injuries throughout the rotation. Michael Porter Jr., Mason Plumlee and Will Barton III all missed several games in February but are expected to return Friday or shortly after the schedule resumes.

Even with all of the injuries over the past month, the Nuggets have done well to maintain their positioning in the standings. Denver is 7-3 over the past 10 games and that has mostly been a result of All-Star level of play from Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. Jokić is averaging 27 points, 12 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game this month, while Murray has showcased his elite scoring abilities in February, averaging 29 points per game on 57.1 percent shooting from the field.

Oklahoma City has been a much better team since the first matchup between these two teams back in early December. Since Denver’s 110-102 victory at Pepsi Center on Dec. 14, the Thunder are 22-8, which has pushed them up to sixth in the Western Conference. Chris Paul was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance in four years as a result of his steadying play on both ends, while other key players such as Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams have helped build a balanced team capable of winning on any night.

The Nuggets have won seven consecutive games against Oklahoma City dating back to the 2017-18 season. Back in early December, Denver won a fairly comfortable game against Oklahoma City, but didn’t have Paul Millsap for that contest and Porter Jr. had yet to fully break into the team’s rotation.

Here are three keys to Friday’s contest:

Control the boards

In that December victory over the Thunder, Denver held a 44-37 advantage on the boards, which has been a consistent theme throughout the 2019-20 season. As a result of the Nuggets’ shot distribution and lack of free throw attempts on offense, a big chunk of their success on that end can be attributed to their ability to create second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass. Denver currently ranks second in the league in offensive rebound percentage.

On the defensive end, the Nuggets aren’t as dominant, but are still around average in terms of defensive rebound percentage. Luckily for Denver, Oklahoma City is one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league, ranking 29th in offensive rebound percentage. The Thunder are slightly below-average on the defensive glass, which could create a mismatch for Denver to exploit and help prop up their offense.

Who will win the mid-range battle?

These two teams have eerily similar shot distributions on the offensive end. Both teams rank in the top five in percentage of shot attempts coming from the mid-range, while they rank near or in the bottom third in percentage of shots at the rim and from beyond the arc. As a result of the emphasis placed on the mid-range, whichever team can find more success from that area of the floor will likely find more offensive success.

Oklahoma City ranks fourth in field-goal percentage from the mid-range at 43.6 percent, while Denver isn’t too far behind, ranking 10th at 41.4 percent. With Jamal Murray back and in a rhythm, he will likely be the key for Denver’s offense to attack an Oklahoma City defense that gives up a good portion of shots from the mid-range. The Thunder rank 24th in opponent frequency of shots coming from the mid-range, while teams have shot 41.8 percent from that area of the floor, ranking 26th in the league.

Defending the rim and limiting free throws

Although Oklahoma City doesn’t attempt many of their shots around the rim, it has found a lot of success from that part of the floor. The Thunder rank sixth in the league in field-goal percentage at the basket at 65.4 percent. When Oklahoma City gets to the basket, chances are that the shots will go down.

Another key part of the Thunder offense is generating points at the free throw line. The Thunder rank third in the league in free-throw rate and convert at a high rate when they get to the charity stripe. All of Oklahoma City’s top four players in free throws attempted per game have converted above 80 percent this season. Denver is slightly above-average in keeping teams off the free-throw line, but that will be even more important in Friday’s contest.

Friday’s game will tip-off at 6 p.m. MT and will air on both ESPN and Altitude TV (Radio: 92.5FM).

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