Injuries and illness created an opportunity for Vlatko Cancar to show he can make a valuable contribution to the Denver Nuggets. After three years of mop-up minutes, he is showing he belongs in the rotation.
Cancar played a total of 25 minutes through the first month of the season, but with several players missing he has been pushed into service. He is averaging 23.4 minutes over the last four games and has made key contributions on both offense and defense.
He'll get more quality time when Denver hosts Houston on Monday night in the first of two home games against the Rockets.
Michael Porter Jr. (heel) and Jeff Green (knee) are not expected to play.
Cancar's expanded role started at Dallas on Nov. 18 when the Nuggets were without Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon. Denver lost that game by 28 points but beat the Mavericks two nights later, and a big reason was Cancar's halfcourt heave that ended the second quarter.
In the last two games he has played 60 minutes, averaging 16 points while playing strong defense. He had three blocks in an overtime win at Oklahoma City on Wednesday and was disruptive in a win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.
"(The Thunder game) gave me a lot of confidence, but at the same time, I'm proud of myself just to stay ready for any given opportunity," Cancar told The Denver Post. "Just to play simple basketball. When you play simple and play to win, you're going to get rewarded by that."
Houston brings a two-game winning streak to Denver and has won three of its last five after starting the season 2-12. The Rockets beat Oklahoma City and rallied to beat Atlanta for their first winning streak.
Houston's wins have come against good teams, including a win at Dallas on Nov. 16.
"I think we're just tired of losing in general," Jalen Green said. "We're coming together and buying in on the defensive side. I think that's what's been helping us out."
The Rockets made key plays down the stretch in the win over the Hawks. Garrison Mathews stole the ball with Houston up one in the final two minutes and drew a foul to give the Rockets more of a cushion.
"Obviously we're better than we were last year on defense," Mathews said. "We got more rim protectors, we got better rebounds, all that stuff. Some more athletic guys, that's super important when it comes to defense."
Green has taken on challenges against some of the best guards in the NBA -- including Trae Young and Steph Curry -- and has held his own.
"Coach (Stephen Silas) has been really trusting me to guard the best players every night," Green said after the win over Atlanta. "That's a new thing for me this year. Last year I didn't even get to do any of that. I was probably one of the players that they would attack in the defense. Now they're not really wanting to use me as a mismatch this year."
--Field Level Media