Preview: Denver Nuggets open road trip in Oklahoma City

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

What if?

The Denver Nuggets faced that question following a scrambled end to their 112-110 loss to the Washington Wizards on Thursday. Despite 58 points from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić, Denver lost at the buzzer following a missed 3-pointer from Facundo Campazzo. The loss was Denver’s fourth in the last six games and dropped the Nuggets to 17-15, good for eighth in the Western Conference.

MORE: Takeaways from loss to Wizards

Now the Nuggets head back on the road, ending the first half of the season with four games away from Ball Arena. The first of those four takes place in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have played some solid basketball, having won two of their past three games.

Oklahoma City (13-19) has mainly won as a result of a strong defense, which ranks 11th in the league. Getting stops has been crucial for the Thunder, who have posted the league’s 30th-ranked offensive rating so far this season.

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

P.J. DOZIER – RIGHT HAMSTRING STRAIN. QUESTIONABLE.

PAUL MILLSAP – LEFT KNEE SPRAIN. OUT.

GARY HARRIS – LEFT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

JAMYCHAL GREEN – LEFT SHOULDER SPRAIN. OUT.

TUNE IN: 6 p.m. MT, Altitude 2 and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Jamal Murray vs. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Canada’s brightest stars will be on display in Saturday’s contest, as Murray and Gilgeous-Alexander go to battle.

Murray has caught fire in February, averaging 25.8 points per game on 50.7 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent from beyond the arc. The 23-year-old has also become a dominant player in the fourth quarter as of late, averaging 10.5 points per game in the fourth quarter during February, which leads the NBA.

Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander has been a breakout star this season for Oklahoma City. The 22-year-old is coming off a career-high 42 points against the San Antonio Spurs and is averaging 23.5 points, 6.4 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game this season in a larger role. Gilgeous-Alexander has increased his scoring to 27.1 points per game in February, making him the primary focus for Denver’s defense on Saturday.

Attack the basket

Oklahoma City’s 11th-ranked defense thrives in key areas, especially avoiding putting opponents on the free-throw line.

However, with the departure of Steven Adams in the offseason, the Thunder have struggled to defend around the rim. Although teams haven’t taken an overwhelming majority of their shots at the rim against Oklahoma City this season (33 percent, right around league average), when teams have gotten to the basket, they’ve typically finished.

Oklahoma City ranks 29th in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim this season (68.1 percent), which should be music to Denver’s ears heading into Saturday’s contest. Although Denver doesn’t attempt many shots around the basket this season (ranking 21st in the frequency of shot attempts from within four feet of the rim), the Nuggets have been an elite finishing team this season, converting 66.7 percent of those shots, good for eighth in the league.

Denver’s offense should focus on getting dribble penetration and getting inside the paint on Saturday to either collapse the defense and generate open 3-point attempts, or to convert right around the basket.

Limit 3-point attempts on defense

Oklahoma City’s offense focuses on creating a modern shot distribution, looking for shots around the rim or from beyond the arc. The Thunder rank 11th in the frequency of shot attempts coming at the rim and seventh in the frequency of shots coming from downtown.

Nearly 40 percent of Oklahoma City’s shot attempts this season have come from deep, and although those shots haven’t fallen at an elite clip (35.5 percent, good for 25th in the league), Denver’s defense can make Oklahoma City more uncomfortable by running shooters off the 3-point line and try to force mid-range jumpers.

Although the Thunder have shot a respectable 41.8 percent from the mid-range this season, they don’t look to take those shots on a regular basis, ranking 24th in the frequency of mid-range shot attempts.

All numbers and records are as of Friday, Feb. 26.

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