Preview: Nuggets travel to Memphis seeking fifth-straight win vs. surprising Grizzlies

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Nuggets (32-14) comfortably won their first two encounters against the Grizzlies (22-24) but could face some challenges Tuesday against a suddenly surging Memphis team.

The Grizzlies have shown a lot of growth since the last time these two teams faced each other on Dec. 28. They are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, having won eight of their last 10 games. Ball movement has been the catalyst for Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins’ team, with the Grizzlies averaging a league-leading 28.8 assists per game during that span. Leading Rookie of the Year candidate Ja Morant is leading the charge for the group, averaging 7.1 dimes per game (12th). Memphis has won its last two games, reeling off victories against the Pistons and Suns.

Denver comes into the matchup off an emotional victory against the Houston Rockets, a game that was proceeded by news of the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. Nikola Jokić continued his recent torrid stretch with his ninth triple-double of the season, putting up 24 points, 12 boards and 11 assists. Jokić is averaging 22.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 51.5 percent in his last 10 games. His strong play during that period has been pivotal for the injury-depleted Nuggets, who have seen several key rotation players including Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Michael Porter Jr., Mason Plumlee, and Gary Harris all miss time due to various ailments.

The Nuggets have won seven of their last 10 games and are also on a two-game win streak, beating the Pelicans and Rockets. Michael Malone’s team has also won four-straight against the Grizzlies, a streak that started on Dec. 10, 2018, with a 105-99 victory at Pepsi Center.

Projected starters: Will Barton III, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokić

TUNE IN: 6 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE, RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM/950AM

Here are the storylines to follow:

Contain Ja  

Morant continues to improve each month, which is a credit to the Grizzlies’ first-year standout. His uptick has also helped in the standings.

During the team’s current 8-2 stretch, Morant has increased his assists, dishing 8.8 assists a contest as compared to his season average of 7.1. He is also shooting 53.2 percent from the field during that span, improving on his season field-goal percentage of 48.7. In order for the Nuggets to secure their third win against the Grizzlies this season, they’ll need to find ways to take Morant out of his comfort zone.

In losses, Morant’s field-goal percentage and assists dip, with the guard shooting 45.6 percent and averaging 6.6 dimes in 19 Grizzlies contests. The guard takes 44 percent of his shots at the rim, converting at 60 percent. If the Nuggets can limit his drives to the rim and force him to shoot from 10 feet to just before the three-point line, where he’s shooting 37.5 percent, it would boost their chances.

Give the rock to Nikola

Jokić had one of his better games of the season against Memphis in the Dec. 28 matchup, putting up a triple-double with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets center largely dominated Memphis in the paint, converting on all of six of his field-goal attempts at the rim. Denver will need more of the same Tuesday.

The Grizzlies are 14th in the NBA in points allowed in the paint (47.4) and 28th in second-chance points allowed (14.5), two areas where the Nuggets excel on offense. Denver is fourth in second-chance points (14.5) and fifth in points in the paint (50). Finding Jokić in the low post early and often could help his team dictate the game Tuesday.

A repeat performance from the bench?

Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. played a significant role in sparking the Nuggets’ bench to outscore Houston’s 44-30. It was a welcome return to form for Morris, who hit three shots from downtown en route to a 17-point, seven-rebound and four-assist night. The Nuggets could use a similar performance Tuesday.

Memphis has one of the better benches in the NBA, with its second unit sitting 10th in bench scoring at 39.7 points per contest. The group is led by another standout rookie in Brandon Clarke, who is quietly averaging 12.1 points on 62.2 percent. The Grizzlies are also getting contributions from De'Anthony Melton (1.3 steals per game), Tyus Jones (43.8 percent on three-pointers in his last 10 games) and Solomon Hill (41.3 percent from downtown). Although the Nuggets are short-handed, they have seen Morris, Porter Jr. and Malik Beasley step up their games recently.

Throughout most of the season, the Nuggets’ bench has struggled to find consistency, sitting 16th in plus/minus at -0.6. In the past 10 games though, the second unit has vastly improved, rising to seventh in plus/minus at 2.0. The group is also 10th in the NBA bench scoring (40.6) during that span.

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