Preview: Denver Nuggets kick off homestand against Trail Blazers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Home sweet home. The familiar confines of Pepsi Center will be a welcomed sight for the Denver Nuggets, who begin their five-game homestand following their 1-3 road trip on the east coast.

Their opponent to begin the homestand? The Portland Trail Blazers, another familiar sight for the Nuggets. After facing off 11 times in the 2018-19 season, Thursday’s matchup will be the fourth time the two teams have played this season, including two preseason contests.

For Denver (14-8), Thursday’s game presents an opportunity to right the ship and get back to winning ways. With the offense continuing to struggle, the Nuggets have fallen into a 1-5 stretch over the last two weeks, with the lone win coming against a New York Knicks team with the worst record in the league.

Although Denver’s defense still ranks in the top three of the league, shooting slumps and a slow pace in getting into offensive sets has doomed the Nuggets in recent losses, though Denver has faced three of the better teams (Lakers, Celtics, 76ers) in the league during this cold stretch.

Portland (10-15) has had to deal with numerous injuries to key rotation players this season, most notably Zach Collins and Rodney Hood, which, when coupled with the continued absence of Jusuf Nurkić has made it difficult for Terry Stotts to iron out his rotation. Of course, the notable difference in this second matchup between Denver and Portland will be the presence of Carmelo Anthony, the former Nugget who has averaged 15.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in 11 contests for the Trail Blazers.

Anthony has not won a game in six contests that he took the court in at Pepsi Center since he was traded from the Nuggets in 2011. Overall, Anthony owns a 4-10 record against Denver since the trade.

Here are three keys to Thursday’s game:

Control the boards

Despite the addition of Hassan Whiteside in the offseason, the Trail Blazers have struggled to keep up on the boards this season, especially as the injuries continue to pile up. With Anthony starting at the four position alongside Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Kent Bazemore, Portland doesn’t strike fear with the size of their starting lineup. Anthony Tolliver and Skal Labissiere are the two main big men off the bench, which doesn’t help Portland’s rebounding attack.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets rank near the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding this season. Denver ranks 11th in offensive rebound percentage and eighth in opponent offensive rebound percentage, while Portland ranks 23rd and 26th respectively in the two categories. The boards are an area Denver can attack and exploit.

Attack the basket for easy points

The Trail Blazers do a good job of limiting 3-point attempts as they rank 12th in their opponent’s frequency of 3-point attempts. Furthermore, teams have only connected on 34.5 percent from beyond the arc against Portland, good for the sixth-lowest percentage in the league (Denver continues to top the league in opponent 3-point percentage).

However, where Portland’s 19th-ranked defense is vulnerable is around the rim. The Trail Blazers rank 20th in their opponent’s frequency of shots coming at the rim, while driving to the basket will increase Denver’s chances of getting to the free throw line, as Portland ranks 28th in the league in opponent free throw rate. The Nuggets’ offense hasn’t been predicated in getting to the basket or the charity stripe, but against Portland that should be a focus when looking to breakdown the defense.

Can Jokić continue his strong play?

One of the main topics of discussion surrounding the Nuggets this season has been Nikola Jokić’s unusually quiet play on the court. After finishing the 2018-19 season with averages of 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game, the Serbian big man has averaged just 16 points, 10 rebounds and 6.3 assists this season. However, Denver’s All-Star big man has stepped up his scoring in recent games and is averaging 17.6 points per game in the month of December.

Jokić has had plenty of success against Portland in recent matchups. Last season, Jokić averaged 25.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game against the Trail Blazers, while he dropped 20 points (8 of 14 shooting) and 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes of action against Portland in the 2019-20 opener. Attacking Portland’s injury-depleted frontcourt will be key for Jokić and the Nuggets on Thursday.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray (questionable - trunk contusion), Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap (questionable - left foot soreness), Nikola Jokić

Thursday’s game will tip-off at 8:30 p.m. MT and will air on TNT (Radio: KKSE 92.5FM).

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