Preview: Denver Nuggets return home to face Portland Trail Blazers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Following a 1-3 road trip on the east coast, the Denver Nuggets will certainly be happy to see Ball Arena for the next two games as they look to bounce back and gain momentum heading into the All-Star break.

Denver’s latest loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday dropped the team to 16-14 on the season and continued to highlight some of the team’s struggles on the defensive end. Atlanta posted a 124.2 offensive rating in the victory, as Denver’s defense dropped to 21st in the league for the season following Sunday’s game.

MORE: Three takeaways from loss to Hawks

Nikola Jokić struggled to find a rhythm against Atlanta and Denver didn’t have enough late to make a comeback. Now the focus shifts to the next two games at Ball Arena, which opens with the first meeting of the season against a familiar foe.

Portland (18-12) is surging in the Western Conference playoff picture, having won seven of its last 10 games. What’s even more impressive about this run is that it has come without C.J. McCollum and former Nugget Jusuf Nurkić, who has been out due to injury. Damian Lillard has led Portland with MVP-caliber play in recent weeks and will certainly be the primary focus for Denver’s defense.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Michael Porter Jr., Zeke Nnaji, Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

GREG WHITTINGTON – LEFT KNEE ARTHROSCOPY. OUT.

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

PAUL MILLSAP – LEFT KNEE SPRAIN. OUT.

GARY HARRIS – LEFT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

JAMYCHAL GREEN – LEFT SHOULDER SPRAIN. OUT.

TUNE IN: 8 p.m. MT, TNT, 92.5FM

Key matchup: Jamal Murray vs. Damian Lillard

Once again, Lillard is making a case to be considered the best offensive player in the NBA. With averages of 30 points and 7.9 assists per game (on 62 percent true shooting), the 30-year-old guard is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

With McCollum out, Lillard has increased his playmaking while maintaining his elite scoring numbers. The five-time All-Star has averaged 9.1 assists per game in the month of February, showcasing his ability to find the open man when defenses lock-in or double-team him.

With Gary Harris out for Tuesday’s game, Murray and Will Barton III will likely be tasked with slowing down Lillard.

One of the positive signs for Denver during the road trip was the consistency from Murray, who has scored at least 25 points in each of the past five games, including his historic 50-point performance against Cleveland.

The Nuggets will need to match Portland’s explosive offense on Tuesday, and a high-scoring performance from Murray will go a long way in doing that. There should be plenty of highlights coming from the two guards in Tuesday’s national TV game.

Defend the 3-point line

The Nuggets will need to focus on running shooters off the 3-point line against Portland, who builds its offense around a steady diet of attempts from beyond the arc.

The Trail Blazers rank first in the league in 3-point attempts per game (42.4) and fifth in percentage (38.7 percent). Meanwhile, Portland ranks in the bottom 10 of the league in the frequency of shot attempts coming at the rim and in the mid-range, thereby increasing the urgency needed when closing out on shooters.

Denver has been susceptible to elite 3-point shooting teams this season. Opponents have attempted 38.2 percent of their shots from downtown against the Nuggets this season, which ranks 24th in the league (the league average is 36.5 percent). Although teams haven’t shot lights out from deep against Denver this season (37.2 percent, right around the league average), if Portland is able to generate quality looks from beyond the arc on a regular basis, Denver’s defense will be in trouble.

Attack the basket on offense

Denver’s shot distribution on offense is one of the more balanced in the league. The Nuggets rank above the league average in the frequency of shot attempts coming from deep and in the mid-range, although given their success at the rim this season, the Nuggets should look to attack the basket more, especially against Portland.

On the season, 31.1 percent of Denver’s shot attempts have come from within four feet of the rim, which ranks 21st in the league. However, at 66.7 percent, the Nuggets rank sixth in field-goal percentage from that area of the floor, highlighting the team’s success in finishing around the basket.

Meanwhile, Portland has struggled to defend the rim this season, allowing teams to get inside the paint regularly. Opponents have attempted 36 percent of their overall shot attempts at the basket against the Trail Blazers so far this year, which ranks 24th in the league (the league average is 33.3 percent).

With Nurkić out, teams have had success getting to the rim and challenging Enes Kanter, and given Denver’s success inside the paint this season, that could be a recipe for success on the offensive end on Tuesday.

All numbers updated as of Tuesday, Feb. 22.

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