Preview: Nuggets welcome back Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangómez as Timberwolves visit Pepsi Center
Less than 48 hours after a disappointing defeat at Oklahoma City, the Nuggets (38-18) return home to host their first game after the All-Star break against the Minnesota Timberwolves (16-38).
The T’wolves feature two former Denver fan and locker room favorites in Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangómez. Both have shined in extended minutes in Minnesota after being traded two weeks ago. The team also made a blockbuster move for 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell on the NBA’s trade deadline day. Despite their arrivals, Minnesota’s struggles have continued, winning just one of their last 10 games.
The Nuggets struggled to shake off the rust from a nine-day break against the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday, dropping a disappointing 113-101 result. Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and Will Barton III combined for 69 points, but the rest of the team struggled to find any rhythm. Denver is 6-4 in its last 10 games but has lost two in a row. Head coach Michael Malone will want to ensure the team doesn’t drop its third-straight contest. That would tie the team’s longest skid of the season.
Denver is on a seven-game winning streak against Minnesota, a stretch that started on Nov. 21, 2018.
Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić
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Here are the storylines to follow:
Malik and Juancho are back
Although Beasley and Hernangómez dropped 12 places in the Western Conference standings, their new surroundings have allowed for more playing time.
Here are the averages for both since moving to Minnesota:
Beasley with Denver (41 games): 7.9 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 38.9 percent on field goals, 36.0 percent on threes
Beasley with Minnesota (4 games): 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 45.9 percent FG, 43.9 percent 3PT
Hernangómez with Denver (34 games): 3.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 34.5 percent FG, 25 percent 3PT
Hernangómez with Minnesota (4 games): 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 44.4 percent FG, 52.6 percent 3PT
Beasley and Hernangómez’s talent was never in question during their four seasons in the Mile High City, but they struggled to find a fit on a deep team that is expected to contend in the Western Conference this season. Hernangómez was thankful for his time developing with the Nuggets’ organization.
“It was my home for four years. I grew up here,” he explained to reporters on Saturday. “I am who I am because of Denver, because of this organization, all of the teammates, all of the coaches.”
He added, “Thanks to the Kroenke family, Tim [Connelly], Artūras [Karnišovas] and coach [Michael] Malone [for making] my dream come true.”
Beasley, for his part, was largely concise about his return to Denver.
“Just ready to play, ready to get better, no matter what team it is,” he told reporters.
Both men have fit in well into Minnesota’s aggressive approach from downtown. The T’wolves are third in the NBA in three-point attempts, launching 38.4 long-range shots per game. Beasley and Hernangómez have combined to take 15.1 threes a game since joining the Timberwolves. Since their arrival, the Timberwolves have seen their three-point percentage shoot up to 43.8 percent in the last four games – second in the league during that span.
A significant key to Sunday’s contest will be forcing both men out of their comfort zones. Beasley is great behind the arc and at the rim, but he is an average ball-handler and mid-range shooter.
Hernangómez is also effective at attacking the rim and hitting threes but struggles against physical defenders. If the Nuggets can limit both from taking outside shots, this should be a straightforward contest.
Picking up the scoring slack
Outside of Jokić, Barton III and Murray, the Nuggets shot 32.4 percent from the field Friday, which was costly in their defeat against the Thunder.
Turnovers were part of the reason, with Denver giving up 19 turnovers, which Oklahoma City scored 25 points from. Another factor was the return of several players from injury, including Mason Plumlee, Barton III, Michael Porter Jr., forcing changes to the rotation.
With the Timberwolves posting a 116.2 defensive rating (27th in the NBA) over their past 10 games, Sunday could potentially present an opportunity for some players to get back on track.
As good as Beasley and Hernangómez have been, the Timberwolves’ biggest acquisition on the NBA’s trade deadline day was Russell, who has starred for the Warriors and Nets over the past two seasons.
Russell has averaged 22 points, 9.7 assists, 4.0 rebounds while shooting 41.2 percent from the field since his arrival in the Twin Cities. After a solid debut with the T’wolves, where he posted 22 points and five assists on 58.3 percent shooting, the 24-year-old has struggled with shooting in his last two games. He is knocking down just 35.9 percent of his attempts in that span.
With Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined with a broken wrist, the onus will fall on Russell to pick up his scoring production. He has shown he’s more than capable in the past, putting up 52 points ironically on Minnesota as a member of the Warriors earlier this season.
Denver largely did a solid job of containing Russell when the team faced the Warriors on Jan. 16, holding the guard to 6-of-18 shooting.