After a 1-2 road trip, the Nuggets return home for three games, against the Pelicans on Tuesday, the Warriors on Thursday and the Hawks on Saturday) DNVR Nuggets discusses who they’re watching closely during this homestand, the state of Denver’s bench and look ahead to Thursday’s showdown against the Warriors.
What player needs to have a big homestand?
Adam Mares: Bones Hyland
I’m not sure any Nuggets player needs to have a big homestand but it sure would feel nice to see Bones Hyland look like his best self for a string of marquee games at home. The bench remains the biggest inconsistency for the Nuggets but when Bones is good, the Nuggets are good. The team is 12-0 when Bones is in the positive, 17-2 when he is a -2 or better. His talent gives him the upside to be a major scorer off the bench. Someone who gains the respect of his veteran benchmates and is trusted to lead the unit. He hasn’t been that player yet this year. But it isn’t foolish to hope that his recent struggles are all a part of his growth as a player.
Harrison Wind: Jamal Murray
You don’t want to overreact to one game, but man, Murray’s performance against the 76ers still stings. He was bad in the late-third and early-fourth quarter stretch when the Nuggets needed him to lead the bench unit. That loss again solidified a take about Murray that goes back to two seasons ago: The Nuggets are a really, really good team when he plays well. They’re an elite and a championship favorite when he plays great. Denver needs him to be great to win a title this season. The Nuggets could use a big Murray game Tuesday against New Orleans, the same team he had a really nice outing against on the road last week when he posted 25 points on efficient shooting and 7 assists to just two turnovers. He needs to play decisive and stay shot-ready. No behind-the-back dribbles in the paint through traffic either.
Brendan Vogt: Bones Hyland
Bones Hyland can earn more trust or juice up his value around the league. Either would be preferable to an extension of the rut he’s in. Bones is a different player at home. He makes and rides waves, putting exclamation points on big runs. Whether you want Bones to be a part of this team or Calvin Booth to make a tough decision, you first wish for Hyland to rediscover the spark. The bench is at a severe talent deficit without him. That entire operation feels futile unless they can either get more out of him or flip him into someone with comparable talent.
How confident are you in the Nuggets’ bench right now?
Mares: The bench isn’t there yet, so my confidence is low. But there are signs of improvement and reason for hope after the recent good play of Zeke Nnaji and Vlatko Cancar. As I wrote above, Bones remains the biggest remaining piece of the equation. If our confidence remains low in this bench unit for the next several weeks, the coaching staff may have to make some tough decisions. But there’s still a runway ahead for the bench to figure things out.
Wind: I lost some confidence in that group because of the 76ers’ loss. That felt like a playoff game. It was a playoff atmosphere. And the second unit just wasn’t good enough. Right now, I don’t 100% trust Bones Hyland, Jeff Green or Zeke Nnaji in a postseason setting. I do trust Bruce Brown, even though he had some awful errors in Philly. If that is Michael Malone’s preferred four players off the bench for the playoffs, I won’t feel great about it. Now if Vlatko Cancar and/or Christian Braun were playing? I’d feel a little better.
Vogt: There are too many questions asked to be confident. Is Bones ready to step up? Will he even be on the team? Is Vlatko the odd man out with Jeff Green returning to the lineup? How does Christian Braun fit into a healthy rotation? We can’t even identify “the bench” right now. There are lower bars to clear than confident.
What are you watching for in Nuggets-Warriors on Thursday?
Mares: The Jokic factor.
I want to see how effective Jokic is offensively and how well the team defends. The Nuggets need to start showing confidence in this matchup. There are a lot of ways that the road to the NBA Finals could go through Golden State and it’s often important for incumbents to build confidence against an opponent. The best way to do that is to punish their defense inside. With a healthy and connected starting lineup, Jokic should be able to make them second guess their small ball death lineup configurations.
Wind: Will Christian Braun play? Seriously.
Braun played against the Warriors in the Nuggets’ second game of the season. He played great too and was a reason why the Nuggets were able to hold the Warriors to 48% shooting from the field and 34% shooting from 3 in their 128-123 win. Even though Golden State put up a lot of points, Denver’s defense was still solid. If Braun isn’t going to be in the Nuggets’ default nine-man rotation when Denver is fully healthy, these are the types of opponents that Malone needs to tweak his lineups and play him against. He’s a game-changer defensively. Every single time Braun plays, he elevates Denver’s defense.
Vogt: Will the Nuggets punch first?
The Nuggets have carried themselves like a different team this year. Except for the second half against Philly, rarely, if at all, have we seen them spooked. They have no reason to fear their opponents anymore except for Golden State. This team has held a psychological edge over the Nuggets for too long. And no longer is the talent gap so extreme that resistance feels futile. Remember, Denver earned a satisfying road win in Oracle earlier in the season. I’m looking to see if they build on the confidence. Are they the team who knocks?