NBA Previews: Nuggets-Heat, Thunder-Jazz as season continues in Orlando

Jazz 100, Thunder 95: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scores career-high ...

The NBA’s resumption continues this weekend as a few surprise package sides clash in compelling matchups on Saturday. Read on for match previews ahead of Nuggets-Heat and Thunder-Jazz as the regular season fixtures intensify.

Denver Nuggets vs Miami Heat: Two surprise packages clash

Tip-off time: 6:00pm GMT

After the Los Angeles Clippers suffered a narrow loss to their city rival Lakers on Thursday evening, can Denver take advantage by closing the gap? Or will Miami spring a surprise on them and reassert their standing as the East’s fourth best team?

There were some encouraging signs, though ultimately Denver’s scrimmage schedule ended with a defeat by the Orlando Magic on July 27.

Their head coach, Michael Malone, had been vocal about how his side had been essentially depleted leading up to their first regular season game back.

Fortunately though, they have some much-needed reinforcements that should provide a boost and increase their chances of beating Miami.

Will Barton and Jamal Murray – both bonafide starters – as well as promising second-year forward Michael Porter Jr, all featured in some capacity.

Although the Heat have already exceeded expectations over the last twelve months, this encounter represents a tricky return to competitive action.

Key players to watch out for

Nuggets: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic brings Nuggets relief as he finally arrives to the ...
Jokic is the Nuggets’ star man and will need to be consistent under pressure in Orlando

A lot has been said about Denver’s franchise player in recent months.

From looking noticeably slimmer to testing COVID-19 positive, to being described as a turnover machine while playing point in their scrimmages, it’s been a transitional period for the Serbian star.

After being effectively isolated against Orlando, the 25-year-old needs to be assertive and make decisive decisions regardless of where he plays on Saturday.

He’s not only their best player, but he’s also their most influential. They’ll struggle to earn much success if Jokic isn’t involved productively throughout.

Heat: Jimmy Butler

How Jimmy Butler became a great teammate and leader on the Miami ...
Butler (centre) has thrived as a leader for Miami this term, with Herro (left) and Adebayo (right)

The leader had some choice words for some of his teammates after they too lost their final scrimmage earlier in the week.

An 18-point defeat by Memphis was far from flattering, with Butler telling reporters afterwards that they were punished for going through the motions.

With a tricky fixture schedule, the onus will be on Jimmy to lead by example – as he’s done admirably already this term.

He leads the team in points (20.2), assists (6.1) and steals (1.7), and the 30-year-old will look to improve his own season statistics against Denver too.

Who’s more likely to win here? The breakdown

Denver are favourites to win this matchup, with a 62.8% advantage in their favour according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. The main reasons why are simple: Jokic-Murray is a devastating tandem when they combine alongside one another.

Miami boast a promising mixture of experience and youthful exuberance but haven’t always shone against tough opposition like the Nuggets this season.

As far as H2H meetings go, they’re fairly even after 65 games. The Heat narrowly edge it 33-32, though Denver have won four of their last five matches and will expect to prevail on this occasion too.

Predicted line-ups

Nuggets: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic.

Heat: Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo, Meyers Leonard.

Prediction: Nuggets to win

Oklahoma City Thunder vs Utah Jazz: Potential first-round preview

Tip-off time: 8:30pm GMT

Two Western Conference rivals are set to battle in an intriguing matchup between the no.4 and no.5 seeds on Saturday evening.

Can Billy Donovan’s side begin with a win, or will Utah earn another gritty victory after surviving against a spirited effort by the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night?

Two teams that have already officially qualified for next month’s playoffs, movement is still possible between now and August 17.

Utah did well to stifle the aforementioned Pelicans late on, improving to 42-23. They play OKC (40-24) next, who currently share an identical record with the Houston Rockets.

It’s easy to forget that the Thunder weren’t supposed to find themselves so high up the standings. Having lost both Paul George and franchise star Russell Westbrook last summer, they were expected to go into rebuild mode.

They’ve done anything but that, powered by a resurgent team in defiant mood to silence their critics and exceed expectations. Thunder-Jazz could well be previewing another postseason encounter, if the standings stay as they are.

Key players to watch out for

Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

NBA Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Signs Converse Deal – Footwear News
Shai has flourished this term and continues to impress in new surroundings with OKC

Much has been said about the young guard’s development, helped by a willing and experienced mentor in Chris Paul.

SGA is averaging 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game this term and relishing an increased role as the fulcrum of an promising OKC side.

It’s one he seemed destined for with the Clippers at some stage before last summer’s blockbuster trade, which included him, Gallinari and draft picks for Paul George.

Still only a second-year player, there’s plenty of growth and potential for the 22-year-old to fulfil and he’ll look to continue that in Orlando.

Jazz: Donovan Mitchell

Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell team up for final play that earns ...
Mitchell finished strong in their narrow win over the Pelicans, though started slow with his shot

Having earned his first All-Star selection earlier this year, Jazz star guard Mitchell has continued with incremental improvements.

Averaging 24.1 points, 4.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds with better free-throw shooting and more accurate FG% (45.3%), questions remain over whether he can replicate that impact in playoff basketball.

Having struggled early on with his shot against the Pelicans on Thursday, he’ll want to quickly atone for a disappointing scoring night (6-of-14, 20 points) against a familiar foe.

Who’s more likely to win here? The breakdown

In 190 regular-season games, the Thunder are comfortably ahead as far as the H2H battles are concerned.

They lead 111-79 against Utah all-time, but matches are often close until deep into the fourth quarter and the Jazz hold somewhat of a psychological advantage after beating them in the 2017 playoffs.

However, OKC have won eight of their last ten regular season meetings – including a four-game sweep in 2018-19.

In addition, the Jazz are without Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist) during this Orlando bubble, who was enjoying career-high averages in points (20.2) and assists (2.1) per game before March’s shutdown.

With limited time to recover from their gruelling battle against the Pelicans, I’d back the Thunder to emerge victorious here.

Predicted line-ups

Thunder: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Terrance Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams.

Jazz: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Rudy Gobert.

Prediction: Thunder to win

What other games are there on Saturday?

11pm GMT: Los Angeles Clippers vs New Orleans

Midnight: Indiana Pacers vs Philadelphia 76ers

Sunday, 1.30am: Toronto Raptors vs Los Angeles Lakers


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