The Nuggets' playoff place hangs in the balance after they suffered a disappointing 107-118 loss in Dallas yesterday. A 23-38 third quarter proved too much for Denver to overcome as they allowed the Mavericks to shoot 55.6% from long range in the game. The Nuggets’ 35-29 record still has them in eighth place, but they are just half a game ahead of the Clippers, and 1.5 games ahead of Utah.
The Cavs are not yet guaranteed a place in the playoffs either, though they will not be too worried about where they sit. They are in third place in the Eastern Conference standings with a record of 37-26. Cleveland are coming off a comfortable 112-90 victory over the Pistons on Monday. Larry Nance Jr had the best game of his career in his first night as a starter for the Cavs, contributing 22 points and 15 rebounds, while LeBron James sat out the entire last quarter after putting up 31 points, seven boards and seven assists in the first three.
Three keys to the game
Which Jokic will turn up? - Jokic was in an incredible patch of form either side of the All-Star break. Over a five game period, he averaged 24.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 11.0 assists. In four games since then though, he has suddenly changed his playing style. In this time he is taking just 6.8 shots per game for an average of ten points, and he has failed to score in double figures in all of his past three games. His other numbers have also dropped, and he is averaging just 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists over the last four weeks.
Last time they played - The last time these two sides played was just last weekend. The Nuggets' offense proved too good for the Cavs' suspect defense in that game as they won 126-117. James had 25 points and 15 assists but had too few helpers, while the Nuggets had four players score 16 points or more. Will history repeat itself?
The Pepsi Center - The Nuggets’ home floor hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for visitors this season. At the highest altitude court in the NBA, Denver are 24-9. They have, however, lost their last two games there, one to the Clippers and one to the Rockets.
Matchup to watch
Larry Nance Jr vs Nikola Jokic - With Tristan Thompson out for multiple games with an ankle sprain, the Cavs will be starting Nance at center, and one game into this change they will be feeling pretty happy about it. The former Laker was dominant from the first tip against Detroit, and shot 9-for-15 on the way to 22 points and 15 boards in just 32 minutes. The talented 25-year-old will be feeling good about himself, but in Jokic he faces one of the most unique challenges in basketball.
Jokic averages 16.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game this season, all career highs, and his ability to shoot, pass and score inside make him an extremely dangerous offensive threat. As he has shown in recent games though, the aggression with which he plays varies significantly from night to night. If he keeps playing as he has in the past week, Nance could get the better of this matchup, but if the big Serb decides to turn it on, he could win Denver the game.
Denver Nuggets predicted starting lineup
PG - Jamal Murray | SG - Gary Harris | SF - Wilson Chandler | PF - Paul Millsap | C - Nikola Jokic
Cleveland Cavaliers predicted starting lineup
PG - George Hill | SG - JR Smith | SF - LeBron James | PF - Cedi Osman | C - Larry Nance Jr
Harris was the man to stop when the Nuggets beat Cleveland last week. The young guard shot 10-for-17, including 6-for-10 from downtown, on the way to 32 points.
James’ 8.1 assists per game in his 27 outings against Denver is the highest of his career. In these games, he also puts up 26.3 points on 49.2% shooting, grabs 7.2 rebounds, and contributes 1.3 steals.
The over/under points total is set at 231.0 points in this game, which is about as high as oddsmakers usually go, but it probably still won’t be enough. The Cavs rank fifth in the league in offensive efficiency and 28th in defense, while the Nuggets have the sixth most efficient offense in the NBA and the 26th ranked defense. Last time they played, the points total was 243, so expect this one to go above 231.
As it was the last time these sides played, this will be a high-scoring affair with a lot of impressive offense and not a lot of defense.
Jokic’s influence on the game will be perhaps the single most important factor in its outcome, so expect him to show a lot more aggression on the offensive end in this game.
The game will see-saw back and forth before Denver pull away late on their home floor. The Nuggets will earn themselves an important victory with a 124-119 win.
The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Tip-off is at 10:30pm ET.