Both the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets head into Friday’s contest with an 8-3 record, but only one will be walking away 9-3. Two teams with dreams of being championship contenders, both with their own MVP-level talent to lean on during the tough moments.
We’re going to see a battle. A fun display of elite-level basketball between inter-conference foes who are both looking to keep their momentum going. As such, things are probably going to come down to the wire, unless one of the teams lays a goose egg, which is always possible.
Still, as usual, it’s worth looking at some areas the Celtics can attack, or will need to be wary of. Here are my 3 tickets to triumph for Friday’s game against the Nuggets.
Pound the rim
No team in the NBA is allowing a higher success rate around the rim than the Nuggets, conceding 76.1% of attempts in their own restricted area. The Celtics are 10th in the league for field-goal percentage in the restricted area this season, converting on 67.4% of their attempts, so yes, attacking the rim feels like a smart option.
Of course, in order to be successful in the paint, you need to penetrate with assertiveness, be it via drives, screens, cuts, or post-ups. It doesn't matter how the Celtics approach getting the ball into the paint, as long as they commit to doing so. However, the absence of Malcolm Brogdon off the bench is going to be felt, especially in a game where penetrating off the dribble is likely to be at a premium.
We might see Joe Mazzulla re-deploy a delayed cutting scheme, or ask the Celtics to take control of the game by forcing Denver to play at an unfamiliar pace which would restrict Jokic’s ability to operate as a drop defender.
Win the perimeter battle
There’s a reason why the Nuggets rank 29th in the league for drives per game, and that’s because they’re lighting teams up from the perimeter. Denver currently ranks 1st in the league for shooting percentage on non-corner 3’s, hitting 40.5% of them, while they’re 2nd in corner 3’s, dropping 47.2% of their looks.
So, the Celtics will need to be at their best when navigating screens, closing out to shooters, and switching during actions, otherwise, Denver is going to punish every late contest or missed rotation. Right now, Boston sits 14th in guarding ‘above the break’ 3’s and 19th in defending the corners — so it’s certainly going to be an interesting battle to see how the Celtics adjust their coverages to limit and impact Denver’s perimeter shooting game.
Still, we’re talking about a Celtics core that boasted the best defense in the NBA last season, so hopefully, playing a team at the level of Denver will spark somewhat of a revival in their intensity on the defensive side of the court.
Trust Payton Pritchard
With Malcolm Brogdon ruled out of Friday’s game due to a hamstring issue, we’re likely to see a significant increase in playing time for Payton Pritchard. Granted, this season, the third-year guard has looked a little off the pace in terms of his perimeter shooting and playmaking, but that’s to be expected given his limited role within the rotation.
If you can feature Pritchard in some actions early — similar to what Mazzulla seems to do for Sam Hauser, then you can build some confidence in him, and get him playing the brand of basketball we saw from him during the NBA Finals run last season.
Because, if you can get both Pritchard and Hauser operating as off-ball shooting threats, along with Tatum and Brown playing at an elite level, the Nuggets will struggle to keep pace with Boston’s offense, and that’s going to be a significant key in creating a cushion for when they have an inevitable period of stagnation.
Both the Celtics and Nuggets like to let their shots fly from deep, but they utilize different styles of play to generate those shot attempts. Boston likes to attack via drive-and-kick while looking for the extra pass, whereas the Nuggets run screening actions and rely on solid movement along with Jokic’s elite passing.
Whichever team can implement their will, in terms of generating their favored 3-point shots, will likely have the advantage throughout tonight’s game, and I’m expecting the contest to come close to a record in terms of 3’s attempted in a game.
Prediction: Boston wins a close one.