Thursday, January 26, 2023

NBA Preview: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets knew star Nikola Jokic would need to assume a larger role in the team’s offense after guard Jamal Murray suffered a torn ACL last April. They just didn’t think he’d have to do everything.

After going 4-4 in their first eight games, Nuggets coach Michael Malone is still waiting to see who will step up in Murray’s absence. He hopes to get more answers Saturday when Denver begins a five-game homestand against the Houston Rockets.

Denver dropped its second straight game to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday despite another stellar effort from Jokic, who had 34 points and 11 rebounds in the 108-106 loss.

Last season’s MVP is averaging 25.1 points, 13.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists while playing 31 minutes per game.

“Nikola’s not a good player, he’s a great player,” Malone said. “But every time he comes out, everything just falls apart. It’s every night. I went to him in the fourth quarter, I called his name, and he looked at me, kind of like, ‘Already?’ And I feel for him. Nikola’s gonna be worn down by Christmas at this rate.”

Malone will turn to Jokic again versus a young Houston squad that has lost six in a row. The 7-footer faces an intriguing matchup against Rockets first-round draft pick Alperen Sengun.

The 19-year-old Sengun turned in a strong performance in Thursday’s 123-111 loss to the Phoenix Suns, finishing with 10 points, four rebounds, five assists and one steal.

The 6-foot-9 center has started the last two games in place of Daniel Theis, who is day-to-day with a sore right big toe.

Sengun can expect help on the defensive end from second-year forward Jae’Sean Tate, who is averaging 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. Tate has emerged as a defensive stopper for coach Stephen Silas.

“That’s my role,” Tate said. “That’s what I’m on the court at different times for because I feel like I can be an elite defender. And coach trusts me. He trusts me on the best players on the other team, and my teammates trust me.”

Houston is looking to build on an encouraging showing against Phoenix. Guard Kevin Porter Jr. scored a season-high 20 points, while forward Christian Wood added 18.

Wood is averaging a team-high 19.9 points on 47.6 percent shooting for Houston, which has lost its last four meetings against Denver.

The Nuggets received a spark in Wednesday’s game against Memphis from guard Will Barton, who scored a season-high 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting.

Denver forward Michael Porter Jr. recorded 12 points and 11 rebounds in the loss and is mired in an early-season shooting slump.

The 6-foot-10 Porter, who averaged 19 points last season, is shooting 36.4 percent from the field and 21.7 percent from 3-point range while scoring 10.9 points per game.

Porter missed all three of his 3-point attempts in Wednesday’s loss and is 1 for 18 from beyond the arc over his past four games.

“I never get the sense with Michael that he’s nervous or doubting himself,” Malone said. “Obviously, we’re not accustomed to seeing Michael have this type of a start to the season after seven games. I have no doubt that he’ll be able to shoot himself out of it.”

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