Nuggets need to close out 2021 on a high note despite tough schedule, injuries

Dec 17, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) is defended by Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) in the first quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

As the Denver Nuggets approached the end of November, they were in the midst of a six-game losing streak that had altered the course of their season. They were losing player after player after player to injuries – including a few missed games from the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic – and their defensive identity that allowed them to be successful early in the season had vanished entirely.

To make matters worse, there was no statistical evidence that the Nuggets offense was on track to find their way back to dominant levels with or without Jokic on the floor. Denver was without three of its six-best players which has forced them to play end-of-the-bench reserves nightly hurting the overall offensive talent on the floor at any given time. It also does not help that the Nuggets are defending no one which has led to playing against a set defense seemingly every possession. And that is without taking into account the constant roster disruption destroying any semblance of a rhythm for the team or any individuals.

Despite everything working against the Nuggets, they entered December and found a way to win five of their nine games thus far and are now presented with an opportunity to burst into 2022 with positive momentum, but it won’t be easy.

Denver’s injury concerns have not dissipated in the slightest. PJ Dozier (left ACL surgery), Jamal Murray (left knee injury recovery), and Michael Porter Jr. (lumbar spine surgery/health and safety protocols) all continue to be out as expected. Markus Howard (left knee sprain) will also continue to be out and will be reevaluated in six weeks. Bol Bol (health and safety protocols) is out as well. There are two more additions to round out the rest of the Nuggets injury report prior to taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder: Aaron Gordon (left hamstring soreness) and JaMychal Green (right ankle sprain/left knee soreness) are both questionable to play.

Despite being labeled as questionable, both Green and Gordon’s injuries are notable. After beating the Washington Wizards all the way back on December 13th, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone stated that he, “did not think he was going to play because the trainers said he was that bad”. Gordon has not missed a game due to his left hamstring soreness and has played through the ailment thus far, but it is concerning that he is still on the injury report. That same night, during Malone’s pregame media availability, he called Green’s ankle issue, “serious,” when asked about his chances to play and he has missed Denver’s three games since then.

Denver also has a tough schedule to finish out 2021. On Wednesday night, it begins a back-to-back starting in Oklahoma City against the Thunder before heading home to battle with the Charlotte Hornets the following night. Then, after two days off including Christmas Day, the Nuggets head to Los Angeles to battle with the Clippers before closing the season with two games against the dominant Golden State Warriors on the 28th and 30th of December.

Here’s a breakdown of the looming schedule.

Thunder vs Nuggets

The Nuggets absolutely cannot overlook the Thunder. They have had four days in-between games after getting their road matchup with the Brooklyn Nets postponed which puts the Nuggets firmly in position for a trap game and if they drop this one, it puts them in a tough position to end on a high note as their opponents only get tougher as the year comes to a close.

Will Denver come out rusty and lackadaisical on the road against the 10-19 Thunder who are 4-3 in their last seven games? If they do, they could be in for a surprise like the Memphis Grizzlies were when the Thunder beat them 102-99 on Monday night.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been terrific this season, Josh Giddey has adapted to the NBA at a rapid pace as a creator, and as a team, the Thunder can be feisty. They have the same total losses as the Sacramento Kings (19), who are currently occupying the 10th seed in the Western Conference and the final play-in tournament slot. Prior to Wednesday’s games, the Thunder are sitting just 1.5 games back of that accomplishment.

With that being said, if the Nuggets take this matchup seriously, they have every reason to come away with a sizable victory due to one enormous mismatch: the Thunder’s big men versus Jokic.

There is not one person on the Thunder who even remotely has a chance to defend Jokic one-on-one. Oklahoma City has most recently started Derrick Favors at center and rookie Jeremiah Robinson-Earl at power forward; neither of which are taller than six-foot-nine. If the Thunder elect to utilize their bench to try and slow Jokic, the only two options they have are Aleksej Pokusevski, who is not even 200 pounds soaking went, or Mike Muscala who is terrifyingly the second-best option they have on paper.

If the Thunder realize they have no ability to matchup with Jokic, they will have to choose between letting him destroy their defense individually every time down the floor or send double teams at Jokic which is also a death sentence for opposing defenses.

If the Nuggets take this game seriously, they should score at will and win handily. If they come in unprepared, the Thunder have the talent to pull off the upset.

Nuggets vs Hornets

I know I said Denver’s battle with Oklahoma City was a trap game, but the honest truth is that both sides of the back-to-back represent trap games for different reasons.

The Hornets have not had a strong final month of 2021. They are 3-7 in their last 10 games, own the worst defensive rating in the month of December by allowing a whopping 122.1 points per 100 possessions, and are also owners of the lowest total rebounding percentage over that same span of time with a rebounding percentage of just 46.7 percent.

Despite those facts, Denver cannot overlook the Hornets with the Clippers and a two-game set against the Warriors to follow.

The Nuggets have found an offensive rhythm over the last month and that should aid them in their pursuit of an undefeated back-to-back set, but they must dictate the pace of the game by securing rebounds on both ends of the floor.

If Charlotte does dictate the pace, LaMelo Ball and company will absolutely blitz Denver’s struggling defense in transition and in the half court. Offensively, the Hornets have plenty of weapons to shoot the Nuggets out of the game. Ball and Terry Rozier will test the Nuggets porous perimeter defense, Gordon will be focused on Miles Bridges for the majority of the night, Jeff Green will be checking the quicker Kelly Oubre Jr., and Jokic will battling down low with his former teammate Mason Plumlee.

That is plenty of scoring and opportunity for the Hornets to exploit the Nuggets defense if Denver makes mistakes. Charlotte is sixth in the league in points off turnovers, fifth in fast break points, and fifth in points in the paint. There are no illusions about what the Hornets want to do. It’s all about securing rebounds and getting back on defense to slow them down.

The Nuggets should win this game as well, but they will have to assert their style of play on the Hornets to do so.

Clippers vs Nuggets

The Clippers continue to be confounding as they have been all season long.

After a four-game winning streak against the Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, and Phoenix Suns, the Clippers immediately fell off a cliff. They followed with a three-game losing streak to the Utah Jazz, Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs.

The Clippers are just 5-5 in December, but they are still a formidable opponent. Paul George can single-handidly win a game on any given night, Ivica Zubac is an underrated post defender and can at least make Jokic’s life slightly tougher than other opponents, and the Clippers have the seventh-best bench scoring in December.

The Nuggets chances of success reside in their level of execution on the road against the Clippers. They have mismatches to exploit such as Jeff Green likely being defended by Terance Mann who is three inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than his opponent as well as Monte Morris being defended by either Reggie Jackson or Luke Kennard, both of whom could – and should – be attacked on any possession.

So long as the Nuggets do not shoot themselves in the foot and execute at a high level on offense, they should have the mixture to come away with a victory in the City of Angels, but it won’t be easy.

Warriors vs Nuggets two-game set 

It is almost cruel to end 2021 with a two-game set against the 25-6 Warriors led by the new owner of the all-time 3-pointers made record and the greatest shooter of all time in Stephen Curry, but that is where the Nuggets find themselves.

The Warriors are fourth in offensive rating (111.8), first in defensive rating (101.2) and first in net rating (+10.6) in the league so far and they have not had a single second of Klay Thompson on the floor or their prized first round pick from 2020 in James Wiseman. Curry, as stated earlier, broke the all-time 3-pointers record and is currently averaging 27.1 points per game which is third in the league and he is doing so by taking an incredible 13.4 3-point shots per game which 3.6 attempted 3-pointers more than Buddy Hield, who is second in basketball in 3-pointers per game. Simply stated, if the Nuggets want to create an avenue to a win, they need to get the ball out of Curry’s hands at all costs.

Denver might be able to survive the defensive juggernaught that is this Warriors team simply because Jokic demands all of Draymond Green’s attention when they share the floor limiting him from acting as the backline defender that has made Green one of the greatest defenders to ever touch a basketball.

If Denver can find a way to steal even just one of their two games against the Warriors and win two of their three games against the Thunder, Hornets and Clippers it would make for a successful end to 2021.

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