Preview: Nuggets kick off Suns double-header in Phoenix

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

After flirting with the .500 mark all season, the Nuggets (7-7) will aim to go above it for the first time in the 2020-21 season when they face the Suns on the road Friday night. 
 
The Suns have cooled off slightly from their 5-1 start, going 3-4 since the last time these two teams faced each other. Still, they’re strong on both ends, sitting eighth in net rating at 2.9. Phoenix also remains one of the favorites in the Western Conference to reach the postseason, a place it hasn’t been since the 2009-10 season. 
 
Denver is 5-3 in its last eight games and when this team is winning games, it’s usually down to focusing on the defensive end. In its five victories in that span, the team is posting a 101.6 defensive rating (10th). In the three losses, that number balloons up to 118.7 (22nd). 
 
In the last encounter between the two teams, the Nuggets rallied from a 16-point deficit only to see the win escape them after Chris Paul hit a big go-ahead shot with 7.3 remaining in the fourth quarter. The team would lose 106-103 at Ball Arena. Michael Malone’s group will be looking to return the favor, hopefully twice, in their back-to-back in Phoenix. 
 
Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić
 
INJURY REPORT: 
 
QUESTIONABLE: 
 
Michael Porter Jr., Health and Safety Protocols 
 
OUT
 
Greg Whittington, Left Knee Arthroscopy.
 
TUNE IN: 8 p.m. MT, ALTITUDE and ESPN

Here are the storylines to watch for: 
 
Key matchup: Gary Harris vs. Devin Booker 
 
Gary Harris spent the most time defending Devin Booker and was largely effective in slowing down Phoenix’s star guard. 
 
Harris spent a team-high 7:24 minutes guarding Booker, along with another 25:33 minutes in partial possessions, according to NBA.com. During that span, he helped hold Booker to 2-of-5 shooting. Booker also had six turnovers during the time Harris guarded him. Denver will need more of the same Friday. 
 
Booker isn’t as dangerous this season as he has been in seasons past as his Player Efficiency Rating is down from 20.6 to 14.4, but he doesn’t have to shoulder as much due to the arrival of Chris Paul. Although the chemistry between both men is still developing, this is arguably the league’s best backcourt. Booker is currently averaging 22.2 points and 4.1 assists per game on 46.8 shooting. While Harris won’t be the sole person guarding him, he will certainly be relied upon heavily. 
 
MPJ set for return?
 
The Nuggets might finally be whole for the first time in the 2020-21 season.
 
Michael Porter Jr., who has missed all but four games this season due to health and safety protocols, could make his long-awaited return Friday against Phoenix. 
 
“I believe Mike is still being listed as questionable, pending COVID safety protocols…Once you clear and start returning negative tests, that’s a big part of it. Then there’s a cardio aspect of it you have to pass and go through a complete and comprehensive cardio exam,” Malone said after Thursday’s practice. “So I think once all of that comes to play, hopefully, he’ll be able to play at some point on this trip. If it is tomorrow, great. If not, hopefully sometime soon thereafter.” 

If Porter Jr. is able to return Friday, it will certainly be a scoring and rebounding boost for the Nuggets. The second-year forward averaged 19.5 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.6 percent shooting prior to being sidelined. 
 
“[His return] is important,” JaMychal Green said Thursday. “Some of the games we lost, if he was in there, we would have probably won. So it’s just good to be back to a full, healthy team.” 
 
Prior to Porter Jr.’s absence, Green had been out with a calf injury during the Nuggets first four games of the season. With the two men potentially back in the mix during Denver’s grueling five-game road trip, it could open things up and add to an already potent offense. Green is shooting 50 percent from downtown this season and Porter Jr. was hitting at 42.3 percent from that range prior to being sidelined. 
 
Be aggressive 
 
What a difference a month makes. 
 
Part of the Suns’ slippage in their last seven games comes down to defense. After posting the league’s second-best rated defense in December (98.8), the team’s inability to slow down opponents recently has proved costly. In January, the team is 26th in defensive rating at 113.9. 
 
Phoenix has largely had its full roster during the month, so it might be fair to speculate whether or not its three postponed games against Atlanta, Golden State and Indiana could have been a factor. A week off in an NBA season is an eternity. 
 
With the Nuggets remaining one of the NBA’s elite teams on the offensive end, sitting third in rating at 115.3, they should look to attack early and often. Phoenix’s struggles to get steals or generate turnovers should play to Denver’s strengths. In January, Monty Williams’ team is 29th in takeaways (5.3), 24th in opponent turnovers (12.4) and 28th in points off turnovers (13.4). 

 

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