Preview: Retooled Denver Nuggets aim for season sweep against Phoenix Suns

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Denver Nuggets (36-16) were among the most active teams during the NBA trade deadline and they could trot out some of their new acquisitions against the Suns (20-31) in Phoenix Saturday.

Denver got a much-needed two-day break after notching arguably their most impressive win of the season against the Utah Jazz Wednesday. Due to injuries and trades, the Nuggets were only able to play seven players in Salt Lake City. They refused to use that as a crutch, as they rallied back from two double-digit deficits to secure their first win in Utah during Michael Malone’s tenure as head coach. The team is 7-3 in its last 10 games, picking up noteworthy wins against Utah (2x), Milwaukee, Houston and New Orleans along the way. The team will hope to incorporate its latest additions, Jordan McRae, Noah Vonleh and Keita Bates-Diop on Saturday in Phoenix against a struggling Suns team.

Phoenix has slipped after an exciting 6-3 start to the 2019-20 season. The Suns are in the midst of a four-game losing streak and 3-7 in their last 10 outings. Points have been hard to come by for Monte Williams’s team during that stretch, with the group sitting 24th in the league in scoring at 109.3 points per game. Phoenix is also struggling to guard opponents in the paint recently, allowing 52.2 points in the paint game. That should be advantageous to the Nuggets, who are ninth in the NBA in that category – scoring 49.0 points in the paint per game.

This is one of the Nuggets’ final three games before the All-Star break. Denver is 3-0 against Phoenix, but each contest has been close with the Nuggets averaging a margin of victory of just five points.

Projected Starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

TUNE IN: 7 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE, RADIO: KKSE 950AM

Here are the storylines to watch for:

Is Paul back?

Paul Millsap was listed as probable on the injury report, which means the veteran forward could see his first action since Jan. 6. Millsap has been recovering from a left knee contusion that forced him to miss 16 games. Prior to that injury, the 34-year-old was an invaluable presence on both sides of the court, averaging 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting a career-high 41.3 percent from downtown.

If Millsap does return, it could give the Nuggets another player who thrives in the low post – an area of weakness for the Suns.  

How will the new guys fit in?

McRae, Vonleh and Bates-Diop all traveled with the Nuggets from Denver to Phoenix, meaning there is a good chance the trio could be available to play Saturday.

Out of the new additions, McRae is the most likely to see extended minutes since he’s lined up as a replacement for the departed Malik Beasley. Beasley averaged 21.9 minutes per game since Jan. 2 and with Michael Porter Jr. ruled out, McRae could be penciled in to fill that playing roll. Vonleh and Bates-Diop could also see some action, especially if the Nuggets assert themselves early. With the All-Star break coming soon, Malone could look to reduce Nikola Jokić’s minutes as his center will play in the NBA’s midseason spectacle. Jokić has been averaging 36.7 minutes per game in his in Denver’s last three outings.

Stopping DeAndre

This will be the Nuggets’ first look at DeAndre Ayton this season, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. The Suns center has quietly been on fire since Jan. 1, averaging 19.4 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 53.7 percent shooting. Ayton’s recent 31-point and nine-rebound showing against the Mavericks was a significant reason why the Suns were able to stunningly blow out their opponents on Jan. 28.

The Nuggets will likely give Ayton a variety of looks Saturday, with Jokić, Millsap and potentially Vonleh primed to matchup against him. Another element could be attacking the center on the other end of the court. Although Ayton has improved his shot-blocking, going from 0.9 to 1.6 this season, and overall defensive rating (107.1 vs. 113.3 last year), Jokić will be a challenging matchup for him.

Last season, the Nuggets center averaged 27 points on an incredible 73 percent shooting against Phoenix. Considering the recent hot streak Jokić is on, putting up 28.2 points a game on 59 percent shooting, Ayton will likely have his hands full.

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