Eight games into the season, the Nuggets’ 4-4 record is bookended by their 0-3 start and their current three-game winning streak. Last night’s victory over the Timberwolves was a significant step forward, but also marks the beginning of an extremely challenging schedule. to close out November. Starting with tonight’s game at Houston, all of their next seven games are against winning teams, including five on the road.
Denver will have their first chance to go over .500 tonight against he Rockets, who will present a formidable challenge to a Nuggets team which has struggled to defend the perimeter and has lost their primary rim protector in JaVale McGee. Houston leads the league in field goals made at the rim and is seventh in at-rim field goal percentage (.614). And although they are just 23rd in 3-point percentage (.321), they are seventh in attempts and have a slew of players who are capable of draining shots from long range. [Stats from Stats.NBA.com]
The Nuggets will have their hands full containing the elite duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard. The only player they have with the size and strength to possibly resist getting rolled by Dwight is Timofey Mozgov, but against Minnesota, facing the brutish, towering center Nikola Pekovic, Brian Shaw opted to start J.J. Hickson at the five. In that game, the only frontcourt duo who proved truly capable of defending the Pekovic/Kevin Love combo was Timo and Darrell Arthur, so something to watch for will be whether Shaw relents to the MozGod’s rising force and gives him the starting nod. If not, look for Howard to try to exploit his size advantage over Hickson early and often.
It’s hard to see any clear candidate for defending Harden, who, despite struggling from the arc thus far this season, has a strength, quickness and, in most cases size advantage over the Nuggets players who spend time guarding the two. Starter Randy Foye was essentially useless against Kevin Martin, and Harden has a much broader offensive arsenal. Denver’s best bet for containing him may be Wilson Chandler. Given that Rockets coach Kevin McHale (finding himself in a situation analogous to Shaw’s) has recently taken to playing point guards Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley together in order to give more minutes to his best players, there is a fairly good chance that Shaw will be able to likewise utilize some of his dual point guard lineups while Harden is playing the three. If so, it may present a good opportunity to have Chandler defend Harden without creating too many mismatches.
In short, the Rockets have a very well-balanced offense which is the sixth most efficient in the league, and is more than capable of doing plenty of damage by attacking the rim, launching from long range, scoring from the low post and running in transition – all areas in which the Nuggets have not proven very competent defensively. It will require a focused, hard-fought all-around team effort for the Nuggets to limit Houston’s scoring enough to give their offense a chance to win the game.
On the offensive end of the court, the Nuggets may be in the less-than-desirable position of needing to rely on their mid-range shooting. So far this season, Houston’s defense is second in opponent 3-point percentage (.333) and, largely thanks to Dwight, sixth in opponent at-rim percentage (.533). The Rockets are, however, just average or below average in defense between the arc and the basket, and Denver has players in Arthur, Hickson, Lawson, Chandler – and to a lesser extent Miller, Mozgov and (if he ever gets his shot falling) Robinson – who can sink 10-20 foot jumpers at a respectable clip. Brian Shaw has stated that he wants to execute his offense through the elbow, and if he wants to put that aspect of his team’s halfcourt play to the test, Houston might just be the right opponent for emphasizing it.
Although it’s antithetical to everything we know about high value shots (at-rim and corner 3-pointers), if the Nuggets can utilize pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops to pose enough of a mid-range challenge to force Houston to adjust, that could open up a better range of scoring opportunities, not unlike how in football a good running game keeps the defense honest and opens up better play action possibilities.
The keystone of Denver’s offense is Ty Lawson, and against Minnesota we saw a striking example of what happens to it when he’s not on the court. The momentum sputters, the player and ball movement becomes sluggish, and the effort is deflated. But with Howard in the paint, it will be challenging for Ty to execute in his usual drive-and-dish fashion. As such, despite the fact that I’m generally a proponent of an all-aggressive Lawson all the time, his efforts may in this game be more judiciously focused on creating good looks for his teammates and being more of an opportunistic scorer than trying to force things too hard.
Denver will need to make good use of screens and pick-and-rolls in order to create open shots in this game, and their screeners and roll men will need to step up as offensive options by getting open and hitting their shots. Darrell Arthur has recently been making a solid case for more minutes, and this matchup with the Rockets is an appropriate one for Shaw to make better use of his particular skill set on both ends of the court. And minutes management notwithstanding, the recently-returned Chandler, who just might be the Nuggets’ most versatile player on offense, should be deployed to the maximum extent possible.
Vegas currently has the Rockets by eight, and they have a pretty good point. In many ways – including the fact that they’re on the second night of a back-to-back – the odds are stacked against the Nuggets. But this game represents a good litmus test for how far the development of Shaw’s new system has progressed, as the Nuggets will be called upon to execute in areas of the game he has been attempting to cultivate (such as screening, team defense and half court execution) that they have not yet become adequately proficient in.
But tough as it will probably be, this is not by any means an unwinnable game for Denver. And with enough defensive effort and focus; enough energy, hustle and board-crashing from the likes of Faried; and perhaps one or two superlative performances from guys who haven’t had a big game yet this season (paging Nate Robinson), they just might get the job done
You can follow Joel on Twitter: @denbutsu
Next up: Saturday, Nov. 16, 8 PM ET @ Houston. Going to the game? Save money and get cheap Denver Nuggets tickets here.