The Hawks round up their 3-game road trip out West Thursday in Denver against the 0-3 Nuggets. After losing a heart-breaker in Los Angeles to the Lakers, Atlanta came back strong and held off a late rally from the Sacramento Kings to improve to 2-2 on the season. Matt Cianfrone of ESPN TrueHoop's Roundball Mining Company determines how the Nuggets and Hawks will fare against each other in Atlanta's early chance to break .500.
Question (Daniel Christian): The Nuggets lost key defenders Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, and Kosta Koufos this offseason. How have they replaced these departures and how do you see the replacements matching up with Atlanta's offense?
Answer (Matt Cianfrone): They didn't. Instead of bringing in defensive-minded guys to fill those roles, the Nuggets decided on J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye. Darrell Arthur isn't actually a bad defender but he really doesn't get consistent minutes. As for matching up with the Hawks offense, they don't. The Denver bigs (Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Timofey Mozgov and Hickson) have been ok protecting the rim so far but they are absolutely abysmal at defending anyone who can shoot a jumper. Tim Duncan had wide open elbow jumpers all night on Tuesday and Boris Diaw hit a few wide open threes that really swung the game. Horford and Millsap are probably going to have open 16 footers all night if they really want them.
Q: What's the single most important match-up of this game?
A: Millsap vs. Faried and Hickson. Faried can really change a game with his energy and athleticism but he does it in very limited ways; off cuts and offensive rebounds. If Millsap can keep him off the glass, Faried becomes very tough for Denver to play because he is a negative defensively and is no longer helping the offense. On the other end, Faried really struggled the other night trying to play Diaw on the perimeter meaning Millsap can have a big night, especially if he knocks down a corner three or two. If Faried is ineffective, Brian Shaw probably goes to extended minutes for JJ Hickson and he just isn't good.
Q: The Nuggets and Hawks are both known to be offensive-minded teams with questionable defenses. The team whose defense can step up will likely win the game. What can Denver do to slow down Budenholzer's creative and motion-filled offensive attack?
A: Hope Atlanta misses open shots. As I said before, Denver has given up a ton of open shots all year. Against Sacramento and the early part of the San Antonio game those shots weren't going down and Denver hung around. But against the Spurs that changed in the fourth quarter and Denver got run out of their own building in the final quarter. With such an undersized rotation in the back court of Ty Lawson, Robinson, Foye and Andre Miller, the Denver guards don't do all that well contesting shots. If Atlanta knocks down open jumpers, threes especially, this could get ugly early like it did when Portland visited Denver.
Q: Who wins the game and why?
A: The Hawks. I just don't have it in me to trust this Nuggets team until they prove to me they should be trusted. They give up too many open looks thanks to breakdowns on defense, and are playing an offensive style the roster is not suited for, especially missing two of their best offensive players in Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Against the Spurs, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee combined for 30 percent of the Nuggets field goal attempts. No team is going to win a lot of games that way. I think the Hawks get hot early, particularly Horford and Millsap, and despite a late Denver run Atlanta wins by double digits.
My take: Atlanta’s two best offensive players are Al Horford and Paul Millsap. Denver’s biggest weakness is frontcourt defense. I don’t see how JJ Hickson, JaVale McGee, or Kenneth Faried have even a prayer of stopping Atlanta’s offense up front. I’m not sure how Denver’s defense has a prayer of stopping anyone, really. Matt previously wrote of how the Nuggets have struggled defending the three-point shot. Against an offense fixated on movement and screens for the purpose of generating open looks on the perimeter, Denver appears to be on the losing end of quite a few direct match-ups.
But basketball doesn’t always play out so cleanly. Atlanta should pound Denver inside. Atlanta should get plenty of open perimeter looks (especially if, as Matt indicated in his aforementioned post, Nuggets perimeter defenders are bad at fighting through screens). Still, Denver’s offense is talented and they have plenty of depth in the backcourt, which is oh so conveniently where the Hawks’ defense is the weakest.
I think we’re in for a high scoring game, but I think Atlanta’s strength up front will be too much for Denver to overcome.