It has been a long couple of weeks in the bubble for the Denver Nuggets. Actually, it’s been over a month since the Nuggets arrived in Orlando with basically eight healthy players. Nikola Jokic soon joined the team, then Gary Harris and Will Barton, then Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris. At that point, it felt like the entire team came to Orlando on a staggered start time, which had to have Michael Malone extremely frustrated.
Well, we have finally made it. Not to the end of the bubble, but rather to the final seeding game. Porter has blossomed into a star, Jokic and Jamal Murray have looked great in their time, and the rest of the roster is coming together in ways we didn’t expect. All except Harris and Barton, who remain out due to injury reasons. The Nuggets have grown though, evolving over the last two weeks into a team I didn’t expect to see until next season. Even Bol Bol got some action and looks like a legitimate player.
Today, the Nuggets will take on the Toronto Raptors in a game that is all but meaningless. It is a tune-up opportunity for both rosters, and with playoff seeding and opponents locked into place, I wouldn’t expect either team to take this game too seriously. Malone will certainly expect effort and execution from whoever steps on the floor for the Nuggets, but without Harris and Barton, it feels like there’s little to be gained from the Nuggets trying very hard in this one.
I expect multiple starters on each team to sit out today’s festivities. For that reason, I’m going to forego the normal matchup table and instead talk about what I expect from both teams today:
Who: Toronto Raptors vs Denver Nuggets
When: 11:30 AM MT
How to Watch: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy…unless its the romanticized 18th-century type. Altitude if you can find it, League Pass for non-Denver market viewers. Sneak into the bubble in a Mickey Mouse costume. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio.
Rival Blog: Raptors HQ
Who will start?
It wouldn’t surprise me if the above list of injured players grew larger with starters on both sides getting a well earned rest before Game 1 of the playoffs on Monday. The injury risks of the bubble are well documented, and one of the main reasons is because games are very frequent in a short amount of time. This game may be the last time a team like the Nuggets or Raptors will have an opportunity to prepare for the playoffs, but it will also be the final respite before the actions becomes far more serious.
If it were up to me, I would have Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. both rest up and let Jamal Murray play the first half before resting him too. The first two guys have been heavy minutes players for the Nuggets in the bubble, and neither has sat out and rested yet. Other teams have taken the opportunity to fully rest their main players, but Porter is sixth in the NBA in minutes played among players that have played seven bubble games. Jokic is 12th himself. Those guys have been heavily relied upon and deserve some rest time. Normally, I would rest Murray too, but he needs an opportunity to get hot from the perimeter and see his three-pointer go through the net multiple times today.
As for the Raptors, I bet they rest everyone of importance by the second half. Their starters might have two stints in the first half, but head coach Nick Nurse knows the importance of keeping his players as healthy as possible leading up to the playoffs. Ask Kawhi Leonard.
What should the Nuggets be looking for in this final game?
Opponents have shot nearly 44% from three inside the bubble against the Nuggets. Some of it is horrific shooting luck that Denver has experienced. Some of it is…not playing defense. If there’s one thing Malone will crave heading into the playoffs, it’s a strong defensive performance that limits the opportunities of the Raptors. They love to shoot threes and are pretty good at it, so the Nuggets will have their work cut out for them.
Strong performances from fringe playoff rotation players
Given that Harris and Barton are out, the Nuggets have had an opportunity to see different players that wouldn’t normally play in the regular rotation. Porter took advantage of Barton’s absence and established himself as a star in the bubble. Craig as solidified the starting shooting guard spot for now. PJ Dozier has taken the opportunity for minutes off the bench and had some solid games.
The Nuggets have to be concerned about three players in their nine man rotation right now: Craig, Dozier, and Plumlee.
Craig hasn’t shot the ball well in the bubble, but as a starter who needs to be out there for defensive purposes, his shooting is of paramount importance. The difference between Craig’s shooting in the playoffs last year and how he’s shot this year could win or lose the Nuggets a series. He will be left open and will have to prove he can hit shots.
Dozier is the ninth man in a nine man rotation, but if he wants to stay involved with Harris and Barton out, he has to be solid on both sides and do a little bit of everything. Handling the ball and shooting well will take some pressure off of Monte Morris. Defending and doing the little things will take some pressure off of Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant.
Plumlee has not looked great in the bubble thus far, but if he can bounce back and play well on both ends, the Nuggets will be in a better position when Jokic needs a breather.
Bol Bol showcase
This may be the last time Nuggets fans get to see Bol this season. He probably isn’t in the playoff rotation, and based on the seeding games, it’s difficult to expect Malone to trust him in high leverage playoff situations. Still, it was a lot of fun to see Bol play. His highlight moments were incredible, and it’s clear that he has a skill set that should be nurtured and cultivated going forward. His jump shot is elite, and the shot blocking ability is real.
So, if this is the last time he gets to play, I hope he plays a lot. 30 minutes or more with ample shooting opportunities and defensive reps will be the best thing for his development down the line. The Raptors have several veteran big men who will test him, and their heavy three-point shooting scheme will help him learn in the long term. This feels like the perfect learning opportunity for the rookie, and I hope the Nuggets take advantage.