Game Preview: Could Nikola Jokić Return for the Nuggets in Boston?

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider

BOSTON – The Nuggets are in Boston to round out their second-longest road trip of the season, six games in 11 days, with a game on Wednesday night against the Celtics. Boston owns the second-best record in the NBA at 23-6, boasts an MVP candidate in guard Kyrie Irving, and has the league’s best defense.

The game, for the Nuggets, is the second of a back-to-back and the third in four nights. They can even their record on this road trip at 3-3 with a win, and there could be a big-time reinforcement to help get that done. Starting center Nikola Jokić could be back in the lineup tonight after missing the previous six games with a sprained ankle. The Nuggets upgraded Jokić – the team’s second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and leading assist player – to questionable for the game. He’ll test the ankle out prior to the game and a final decision on his availability will be made then.

If Jokić is able to play it would be a big boost for a team that could use fresh legs and additional production. The Nuggets have battled without him, but his presence on the court would be a large step in the team getting back closer to normalcy.

But regardless of whether Jokić is in or out of the lineup, the challenge of beating the Celtics in Boston, where they are 12-2 this season, is massive. Doing these things, however, will give the Nuggets a good chance.

Screen, screen, screen: Boston’s defenders are an in-your-face, pressure-the-basketball crew. They quickly close down space for ball handlers, move their feet well, and play a fairly physical brand of on-ball defense. This is where setting solid screens is mandatory. The best way to free up shooters and give ball handlers some room to roam is by setting solid, physical screens. If the Nuggets don’t, then Boston will hound them all over the floor, keep them out of the lane, and make every shot difficult.

Work the midrange: If there is a soft spot in Boston’s pick-and-roll defense, it is right as the guard turns the corner after receiving a screen and gets into that free throw line and free throw line extended area. Boston’s bigs don’t give much ground when covering the pick-and-roll, but they give enough room that jumpers from the elbows and free throw line will be available.

Get Murray going early: Jamal Murray had another big scoring game in the Nuggets’ win over Detroit on Monday, with 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Playing at least part of the time off the ball has been a big key for him. When Murray has been able to roam and just catch and shoot and not have the every-possession responsibilities of running the team as the primary ball handler, he’s been able to let it fly without worry. And a worry-free Jamal Murray is a productive Jamal Murray. The Nuggets need him to be in that carefree space.

Christopher Dempsey: and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.