Preview: Nuggets seek fourth win in a row when they host Celtics
The Nuggets (10-3) secured two of their most dramatic and impactful regular-season wins against the Celtics last season. Who can forget when Jamal Murray had a career-high 48 points against the Celtics at Pepsi Center? Then at Boston in March, the Nuggets clinched their first trip to the playoffs in six years. Denver will be looking for more of the same when Boston (11-3) visits Pepsi Center in a matchup between the Western and Eastern Conferences’ No. 2 seeds.
The Celtics lost perennial all-stars Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets) and Al Horford (Philadelphia 76ers) to free agency last offseason, yet they remain one of the Eastern Conference’s elite teams, winning eight of their last 10 games. Nonetheless, Boston coach Brad Stevens has been able to quickly regroup thanks to the addition to point guard Kemba Walker. The former Hornets has been a seamless fit, which isn’t always the case for new arrivals in Beantown, home to a team constantly under the microscope as one of the NBA’s most historic franchises.
Boston runs a highly-efficient offense and is the best team in the NBA at limiting its turnovers, only giving away the ball 12.6 times per game. While it is middle-to-bottom of the pack in several offensive categories including points per game (14th), field-goal percentage (21st), three-point percentage (14th) and assists (12th), it is seventh in overall offensive rating (109.9) and fifth in net rating (7.5). The Celtics will be looking to get back on track after dropping two of their last three games.
The Nuggets come into Friday’s game off arguably their best win of the season against the Rockets. As has been the case through most of the season, Denver’s defense was the star of the show. The Nuggets are in the second of a four-game homestand and have a chance to secure its fourth-consecutive victory. Coach Michael Malone’s team has won seven of its last eight contests.
Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić
TUNE IN: 7 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM
Here are three storylines to watch for:
It seems like every other night, the Nuggets are up against one of the NBA’s elite playmakers. Friday, they’ll be up against another in Walker.
He enters the game averaging 22.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per contest on 40.5 percent shooting. Although the ninth-year vet is shooting the fourth-lowest two-point percentage of his career (41.9), he’s shooting a sizzling 39.2 percent from downtown on 9.3 percent attempts per game.
The Nuggets will need to take a page from their strategy against the Rockets and try to take away the three-point shot from Walker and his teammates. Houston averages almost 46 shot attempts from downtown a game, but on Wednesday in Denver, they took 38, making only 12. Boston is eighth in the league in three-point attempts at 35.7 per contest. Limiting shots from that area will be critical.
Feed Jokić early and often
The Celtics have largely mitigated the loss of Horford by turning to second-year player Daniel Theis. The German is an effective defender, evidenced by his impressive 94.9 defensive rating, which is sixth overall in NBA out of players who have played at least10 games. He also rebounds well – averaging 10.5 per game in his last five outings. Yet for all of his positives, he is playing out of his natural power forward position and is 6-foot-8, 245 pounds. As the old basketball adage goes, you can’t teach size, and Nuggets should have an advantage in the 7-foot Jokić, the 2019 All-NBA First Team center.
If the Nuggets maintain their methodical style of offense and slow the game down, they should be able to find ample opportunities to feed their Serbian All-Star in the low post. Enes Kanter is another Celtics frontcourt player to look out for. Last season, when Kanter was a member of the Trail Blazers, he and Jokić engaged in a hard-fought matchup in the Western Conference semifinals.
Clear advantage: Bench
Boston relies heavily on its starters to secure results and Gordon Hayward’s injury on Nov. 11 exposed a startling lack of depth in the roster. With a completely-healthy roster, talented guard Marcus Smart serves as the team’s sixth man. Now that he’s back in the starting five, Boston is still trying to figure out solutions for its best.
The Celtics are 28th in the NBA in bench scoring at 27.1 points per game and 27th in three-point percentage (28.1). Considering the recent upward trend of the Nuggets’ bench, this could be a game where the group is a significant factor.
In the last three games, Denver’s bench is 10th in net rating (2.3), eighth in three-point percentage (40), tied for third in allowed turnovers (4.2) and is 16th in scoring (37.3).