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Wham's Game Preview: Cavs @ Nuggets

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Back in third place after a nail biter win over the Sixers, the Cavs head out for their final road trip of the season and this one is a bear. It starts in Denver against the Nuggets, who are 0.5 games out of first place in the three-way brawl with OKC and Minnesota for the top three seeds.

The defending NBA champs are 29-8 at home and have won 15 of their last 19 games, so on paper the Cavs have no chance. The Nuggets lost their last two games to the Suns by 7 and the T-Wolves by 13 so they will be highly motivated to get back on track.

These teams played in Cleveland way back in November with the Cavs winning 121-109. The Cavs led by 17 after three quarters as the Nuggets were missing starting point guard Jamal Murray. Donovan Mitchell was out for the Cavs but Jarrett Allen was a +42 in 29 minutes as the Cavs played one of their best games of the year.

Murray being out was crucial because the Nuggets’ backup point guard is 33-year-old Reggie Jackson, who was a -28 in 21 minutes, scoring 7 points with 1 assist. The Cavs’ point guards, Garland and CPJ, combined to score 47 points on 17-for-26 from the field. The Nuggets are +4.0 with Murray on the floor and -6.7 with Jackson, so there is a big dropoff and the Cavs took full advantage.

The reason I’m going through all this is because Murray may not play today. He has knee inflammation and they are trying to get him healthy for the playoffs.

“We have one more game this month against Cleveland on Sunday, then you get into San Antonio to close this five-game homestand. So he’s out tonight and I’m not sure for the matinee game against Cleveland but I do think he’ll be back on the court before the playoffs start,” [Coach] Malone said Friday.

Sounds like he won’t play today. If he doesn’t they have the same personnel that lost in Cleveland. The Cavs will also have the same group except they lose Wade and gain Mitchell. Caris LeVert, who missed the last game, is listed as probable but Isaac Okoro is questionable with a toe issue.

Denver is 8.7 points per game better at home, so they’ll have that advantage.

The Nuggets rely heavily on their starters. Their starting five ranks 4th in the NBA in point differential (+13.0), but their bench ranks 29th so any injury to a starter has an impact.

Their four reserves that play the most minutes are Jackson (-6.7 pts per 100 possessions), Christian Braun (-13.3), Justin Holiday (age 34, 0.0), and Payton Watson (age 21, -10.1). In their last two games, both losses, Jackson, starting for Murray, was 9-for-29. Despite his age he played 37 minutes against Minnesota; they don’t have another point guard although Jokic can certainly run the offense.

The Nuggets rank 14th in scoring. They take fewer 3’s than any team in the league, just under 35%. They play slow, ranking 27th in pace, but they are outstanding passers, leading the NBA in assists per play. They rank 6th in points in the paint, so they move the ball to set up passes for layups, then crash the glass. Ranking 7th in offensive rebound percentage is part of the reason they rank high in points in the paint.

The Nuggets are big and physical; Jokic is 6’11”, 284 pounds, Michael Porter Jr is 6’10”, Aaron Gordon 6’8” and 235, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is 6’5” at shooting guard. The Cavs need to be better on the defensive glass than they were against Philadelphia where they allowed 16 offensive boards and 24 second chance points.

Jokic leads the way with a line of 26/12/9, shooting 58% from the field. He’s only hitting 34.5% of his 3’s - not bad but I thought it would be higher. Murray averages 21 points and 7 assists, shooting 42% from deep. Porter averages 17 points on 49% and 40%, Gordon averages 14 points on 55%, and KCP averages 10 points. Jackson averages 10 points off the bench and nobody else on their bench averages more than 7.

Defense is where the Nuggets are strongest as they rank 7th in scoring. Part of that is because they play so slow offensively that it limits defensive possessions, but they do rank 4th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage. The Cavs rank 3rd so these are two of the best teams in the league at basket prevention. Opponents don’t like to shoot 3’s against Denver, possibly because of all that length. Only one team defends fewer 3’s.

The Nuggets don’t force a lot of turnovers, ranking 25th. They play conservatively to contest the shot and force a miss. They are only 19th in defensive rebound percentage, which surprises me. They are 17th in points in the paint allowed, but that might be because opponents don’t take many 3’s, only 36% of their shots are from deep.

These teams rank 4th and 5th in frequency of shots taken at the rim, so they both love to attack the bucket. The Cavs are 4th in frequency of 3-point shots; the Nuggets are last.

Normally this would be an easy win for the Nuggets but we saw what happened in November when Murray was out and they had to play the 33-year-old Reggie Jackson at point guard. The Cavs won easily despite not having Donovan Mitchell. The Nuggets are at home this time and having lost two in a row they need a win if they want to end up with that #1 seed in the West. However, their coach made it clear that getting healthy for the playoffs is the priority.

If Murray is out the Cavs just may have a shot, especially since they have Mitchell this time around.

This one will be on NBA TV.

Injury report

Dean Wade - OUT (knee)
Ty Jerome - OUT (ankle)
Isaac Okoro - QUESTIONABLE (toe)
Craig Porter Jr - DOUBTFUL (illness)
Caris LeVert - PROBABLE (wrist)

Zeke Nnaji - OUT (thigh)
Jamal Murray - QUESTIONABLE (knee)
Nikola Jokic - PROBABLE (hip/wrist)
Vlatko Cancar - OUT (surgery)


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Episode 3-15: "Cavs Survive and Advance"

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Episode 3:15: Cavs Survive and Advance