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Three things to look for as the Celtics host the Nuggets

Can Boston win its fifth straight?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic plots his next move as Grant Williams defends.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

With an up-and-down start to the season well behind them, the Celtics are now winners of four straight and one of the hottest teams in basketball.

They’re tied for second in the Eastern Conference and will look to keep the momentum rolling when they host the Denver Nuggets on Friday at 7 p.m.

Here are three things to look for in what should be an entertaining matchup between two title contenders.

Which style wins out?

There’s enough of a sample size now to know that the benefits of the Celtics going small and playing run-and-gun basketball far outweigh the potential pitfalls.

It’s clear this style suits this team, and Joe Mazzulla’s natural tendencies mesh well with the Celtics’ natural tendencies.

However, the obvious downside is that they’re often outmatched on the boards and sometimes struggle against dominant bigs. The Celtics are 22nd in the NBA in rebounds per game, at 41.4, while the Nuggets are ninth.

Denver’s Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic lineup has a lot of size and may be tough for Boston to stymie.

Do the Celtics have the personnel and inner fortitude to match that physicality?

Meanwhile, the Celtics attempt the most 3’s in the league, at 40.8, while the Nuggets attempt the seventh-fewest, at 31.6. There’s a clear contrast in styles, yet despite the obvious differences, there are some similarities.

Both teams are in the top four in field goal percentage (Denver first, 50.1 percent; Boston fourth, 48.3 percent) and offensive rating (117.6, first, for the Celtics; 114.6, fifth, for the Nuggets).

They both rely on making the extra pass, and turning good looks into great ones, but they go about it in different ways.

Can they slow down Nikola Jokic?

Can the Celtics stop the two-time reigning Most Valuable Player?

His numbers are actually a bit down this year (21.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 9.0 assists – embarrassing, really), but he’s still a ridiculously tough matchup for anyone.

Who’s going to check him? Al Horford and Grant Williams are the most-likely candidates, and Jayson Tatum, Luke Kornet (fight quicksand with slightly quicker sand), Noah Vonleh and, yes, Marcus Smart are all options.

Williams, in particular, will thoroughly enjoy this challenge. What he lacks in height, he makes up for in general obnoxiousness (in a good way). He has a chance to get under Jokic’s skin and pressure him in his trademark way.

It sounds counterintuitive, but if Jokic drops 30, that isn’t necessarily the worst thing. Letting him get double-digit assists is the real killer, because it means the Nuggets are making shots around him.

They’re 5-0 in games where he has 10-plus assists and 3-3 when he finishes with nine or fewer. He’ll hit the occasional 3, but let him take contested ones within reason. Once he starts throwing no-look passes from beyond the arc to wide-open cutters, it usually doesn’t end well for the opposition.

On the flip side, the Celtics need to attack Jokic by running early and often and putting him in uncomfortable situations. He’s a respectable defender, in his own unique way, but it’s certainly not his strength. The Pacers got him in foul trouble on Wednesday and limited him to 21 minutes. Attack the basket, finish with conviction and make him work on that end.

With Malcolm Brogdon out, how does the rotation change?

Malcolm Brogdon, who left midway through the Celtics’ win over the Pistons on Wednesday, has been ruled out for Friday’s game due to right hamstring soreness.

Given Brogdon’s injury history, this is the right call. He’s extremely important to everything the Celtics are hoping to accomplish, so it’s wise to keep him out another night or two.

What’s Mazzulla’s next chess move? Does red-hot Sam Hauser log 30-plus minutes again? Does Payton Pritchard play more significant minutes? Does Derrick White see a spike?

White exploded for 27 points against the Magic on October 22 in arguably his best game as a Celtic. Since then, he hasn’t scored in double figures once. He’s contributing to winning, and playing fundamentally sound basketball (just two turnovers in his last six games), but he looks a bit reserved offensively.

In fairness, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Hauser are essentially unstoppable, so White hasn’t had to do too much. If the Celtics need him to score, can he return to form in a big game?

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