Preview: Denver Nuggets wrap up homestand vs. Trail Blazers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyroNBA

It turns out that a return to the comforts of Ball Arena and the Mile High City was just what the Denver Nuggets needed to regain their footing during the initial stages of the 2021-22 season.

Denver (8-4) is looking to wrap up a perfect homestand Sunday night when the Portland Trail Blazers venture into town. The Nuggets pulled out a fourth-consecutive victory Friday night against the Atlanta Hawks, a game that saw Nikola Jokić drop 22 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists while Aaron Gordon chipped in with a season-high 23 points.

MORE: Takeaways from win over Hawks

Portland (6-7) slightly reshaped its rotation in the offseason and brought in former Nugget Chauncey Billups as head coach but struggles on the road and on the defensive end have contributed to the uneven start. The Trail Blazers are 1-5 away from home and own the 21st-ranked defense heading into Saturday’s slate of games.

Damian Lillard (lower abdominal tendinopathy) has been ruled OUT for Sunday's matchup.

Denver won the regular-season series (2-1) between the two teams last season before defeating Portland in the first round of the 2021 playoffs.

Ball Arena entry requirements: https://www.ballarena.com/newsafetyprotocols

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

Defending the three and the key

When it comes to matching up against Portland’s offense, the defensive game plan must be centered around selling out to defend the paint and the 3-point line.

On the season, 76.8 percent of Portland’s total shot attempts have come from within four feet of the basket or from downtown. The Trail Blazers certainly don’t prioritize mid-range jumpers within the flow of their offense.

Denver’s defense has been effective in limiting shot attempts from those areas of the floor, and while teams have struggled to hit from deep against the Nuggets (32.6 percent), opponents have finished at a 69.2 percent clip around the rim this season against Denver. Portland hasn’t been lights out from either spot, but Denver must make life difficult inside the paint and from downtown Sunday night.

Let it fly from deep

As mentioned earlier, Portland has struggled on the defensive end this season. Those struggles come as a result of not forcing turnovers and giving up a lot of shots around the rim and from beyond the arc.

Opponents have taken 35.4 percent of their shot attempts at the rim (third-highest frequency) and 38.4 percent from downtown. To the Trail Blazers’ credit, teams have struggled to finish around the basket (60.7 percent, fifth-lowest), but that hasn’t carried over to the 3-point attempts, as teams have connected on 38 percent from deep against Portland this season, the fourth-highest clip in the league.

Denver’s struggles from downtown haven’t improved much as of late (the Nuggets still rank 29th at 30.8 percent on the season), but a matchup against Portland could be exactly what Denver needs to find a rhythm from beyond the arc.

Stability on the second unit?

The past two games have been marked by some impressive stints from Denver’s second unit following some early-season struggles. Led by rookie Bones Hyland (27 points and eight assists over the past two games), the Nuggets have received 70 points off the bench over the past two victories.

Hyland has assumed a larger role within the offense through more time with the ball in his hands, which has translated to impressive playmaking from the 21-year-old guard. PJ Dozier chipped in with 12 points during Friday’s contest, while Zeke Nnaji stepped up during Wednesday’s win over the Pacers with a career-high 19 points.

If Denver’s second unit can maintain this recent level of performance while the team gets healthy, it will go a long way in helping the team’s offense move up the ranks in the coming weeks.

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