NORTHWEST DIVISION BATTLE: THE POSTSEASON STORY
The 2010 Denver Nuggets squad can go in two directions in the playoffs. They can go back to their inconsistent ways or buckle down and take care of business, and quite possibly advance to the NBA Finals.
Of course the obvious answer is the second one, but with this Nuggets team you never know. They had a chance to make their own destiny, but they didn’t. Instead they gained a second chance when the Phoenix Suns went into Utah and blew out the Jazz, who will be the Nuggets first challenge. The scrappy Jazz will bring their act into Denver on Saturday where they look to upset the Nugs at the Pepsi Center.
Both squads ended the regular season with identical 53-29 records and both were blown out by the Phoenix Suns in their season finale. However, history is on the Nuggets side. They have had the Jazz’s number this year (winning three of the four games in the season series) and the Jazz haven’t won in Denver since 2008. Not to mention the Nuggets were one of nine teams who beat the Jazz at home.
Utah is coming into the contest even more hobbled than the Nuggets, they will be without Andrei Kirilenko (strained left calf), who missed the final nine games of the regular season. Kirilenko reinjured himself Thursday and will miss the first round, while Carlos Boozer (strained right oblique) will also be hobbled and is a game-time decision on Saturday.
Denver is also dealing with injuries, with Kenyon Martin, Chris ‘The Birdman’ Andersen and Chauncey Billups each being affected down the stretch. K-Mart (partially torn patella tendon) missed 18 of the final 21 games. Billups may not be hurt but he was wearing down in the final games and needed some time to rest. Andersen has been nursing numerous injuries that have continued to affect him this season, but the Birdman refuses to sit out.
PREVIEW: The two squads in the surprisingly powerful Northwest division will battle it out in the first round, in one of the more competitive series to open the playoffs. Both squads have a squad that if ran right is hard to stop and the duo each have very similar squads to last season.
The biggest difference is that the Nuggets don’t have their head coach George Karl for the first round of the playoffs.
Karl is fighting throat cancer and in his spot assistant Adrian Dantley has struggled to keep the Nuggets afloat. Dantley has gone 11-7 and hasn’t had a consistent rotation or controlled the flow of the game. He needs to take control of the team if the Nuggets want to be successful in the playoffs.
However, they both made a switch at starting shooting guard, the Nuggets let Dahntay Jones walk and replaced him with a much cheaper and more offensive version in Arron Afflalo. While Utah traded Ronnie Brewer at the trade deadline and replaced him with rookie Wesley Matthews. Both Afflalo and Matthews are more known for their defense than offense and will be counted on big time in the playoffs to stop the opposing teams’ point guards.
Obviously, the main thing the Nuggets need to do is slow the dynamic duo of Deron Williams and Boozer, but they also need to be aware of Mehmet Okur. The Turkish Center is a sharp-shooting big man (.378 career 3-point shooter) and the Nuggets have struggled against those dangerous shooters.
One big advantage Denver has is its bench, with stud rookie point guard Ty Lawson, the always dangerous JR Smith and fan-favorite Chris Andersen. While the Jazz will go to Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, C.J. Miles and Ronnie Price to match the Nuggets bench.
Game 1: Nuggets won at home, 114-105
Carmelo Anthony had a very well-rounded game, scoring 30 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out five assists. He also made 11-of-22 shots and hit 7-of-10 from the charity stripe in the season opener.
Lawson, in his first ever NBA game, scored 17 points as the Nuggets outscored the Jazz by seven to start the season on a winning note. JR Smith was suspended for the contest. Deron Williams scored 28 to lead six Jazz players who scored in double-figures.
Game 2: Nuggets beat the Jazz in Utah, 105-95
Despite not having their two stars; Anthony and Billups, the Nuggets ran the Jazz out of the EnergySolution Arena.
Lawson led the way with 23 points and nine assists, while Nene dominated in the paint with 22 points – he also recorded six steals in the contest. Boozer led his squad with 18 points and 10 rebounds, but also had five turnovers.
The Nuggets shot over 50 percent from the field and defensively forced the Jazz into 25 turnovers.
Game 3: Nuggets won at home, 119-112
Anthony and Billups showed why they are one of the top duos in the NBA. Melo scored 37 points and Billups added 28. Nene chipped in 18 points, as the Nuggets attempted 49 free throws compared to the Jazz’s 27.
Game 4: Jazz won at home, 116-106.
Again playing without Billups and Anthony, and the Jazz finally got the best of the Nuggets. Kirilenko went off for 22 points, while Williams had 22 and nine assists and Boozer had 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Lawson led the Nuggets with 25 points.
KEY MATCHUP: Chauncey Billups vs. Deron Williams.
Both teams depend heavily on their point guards, the Jazz a little more than the Nuggets. However, Denver needs Billups more than one might think. And they really need him to be a little smarter than he’s been lately and they especially need him to be able to hit shots, which he has also been missing lately. But there is a reason his nickname is Mr. Big Shot.
Billups finished the season averaging a career-high 19.5 points and shooting .386 from behind the arc. And the Nuggets are 34-8 when he shot 40 percent or better from the field. That includes wins over the Lakers and Cavaliers, but he did miss both the road games against the Jazz.
However, he averaged 27 points, four rebounds and three assists in the two contests he played in. He also made 6 of his 14 treys and went 24-28 from the charity stripe.
Williams is arguably the most underrated player in the NBA. He averaged a double-double (18.7 points, 10.5 assists) during the regular season. He is the Jazz’s best player, with an ability to hit clutch shots and make big plays for his team on both sides of the ball. He shot over 50 percent of his 2-point shot and doesn’t really depend on the long bomb like Billups- even though he has the ability to hit it.
Williams has great speed for his size and can also post up his opponents. At 26 years old he can play with the best of them and not to mention Williams is Mr. Consistent and doesn’t take bad shots or bad plays to say the least. He averages 3.1/1 assist to turnover.
It is doubtful that Billups will have to defend Williams, but with the Jazz struggling with injuries Williams will most likely have to defend Billups.
NUGGETS X-FACTOR: Ty Lawson, JR Smith
The reason the Nuggets drafted Lawson was his speed and this rookie point guard has shown he has an extra gear that very few other point guards have. He hasn’t disappointed the Nuggets this season, and the Jazz will be the first to say that.
In the four contests against Utah, Lawson has averaged 19 points and 5 assists. Not to mention he started both the games in Utah and averaged 24 and 6.5. He also began his pro career with a 17-point, six-assist explosion against the Jazz in the season opener.
Very few teams have that advantage coming off the bench, and the Jazz most certainly don’t. When Williams sits Utah has to depend on the far-less talented Ronnie Price. Price may be athletic, but he doesn’t have the speed or defensive-mindset to matchup with Lawson. Not to mention Williams has had a rough time staying in front of 6-foot speedster.
So while Billups gets to rest a bit in the series, Williams will be playing 38 to 40 minutes a contest (the fewest he played against the Nuggets this season is 37). Billups on the other hand only played 33 and 31 minutes in the two games he played against the Jazz.
Smith has been the Nuggets X-Factor this season. When he is on, HE IS ON. But when he is off, James Naismith is turning in his grave. In the games, Smith scored more than 20 points the Nuggets are 13-5. However, JR has struggled against the Jazz this season and hasn’t reached 20 in the series. He is shooting only .364 percent from the field and averaging 16 points a contest. Maybe it is the intelligence of Utah’s players or maybe it JR’s focus, but as we all know JR plays his best in big games and every game in the playoffs is a big game.
JAZZ X-FACTOR: Mehmet Okur
I originally had Kirilenko here, since he has given Melo fits in the past, but with him out there is only one X-Factor for the Jazz. And that is Okur.
For Utah to have any chance against the Nuggets, they need Okur to step up and take some pressure off of Boozer and Williams. The Nuggets bigs struggle against opposing bigs that can shoot from distance (Channing Frye, Danillo Gallinari, Ersan Illyasova…). Okur is one of the best shooting big man in the NBA and has some solid post moves to go with it. The Turkish center hasn’t been able to get his offense going against the Nuggets (11.3 points) and partly due to Kenyon Martin defending him. However, K-Mart isn’t 100 percent and Okur may take advantage of that. If that is the case, than Okur may have a field day like he did in the season finale (21 points, 11 rebounds and hitting three treys) against the Suns.
BENCH: This is where the Nuggets have a major advantage, withthe trio of Birdman, Lawson and Smith coming off the bench teams are forced to match the energy of the three.
Each can impact a game in their own way, Lawson with his speed and intelligence, Birdman with his energy and rebounding and JR with his explosiveness on offense. As mentioned above Lawson has played well against Utah, while JR has struggled, but in the end the Jazz don’t have any such answer to either player.
They do have the smart and hard-working Millsap coming off the bench, joined by Kyle Korver and Price. However, they lost depth now that C.J. Miles has to start and with the chances Millsap will have to play in place of Boozer.
Korver is a dangerous shooter that may cause problems off of double teams, but outside of him and Millsap the Jazz lose quite a bit going to the bench. Price struggles running a team and Miles can’t really take over a game like JR can.
NUGGETS GAME PLAN:
OFFENSE: The Nuggets top priority is getting Melo and Billups going, however, that task may be easier said than done. Getting Melo going should be the biggest key and without Kirilenko the former Syracuse star should see quite a few double teams or zone defenses.
Matthews or Miles will have to step up and guard the much bigger Melo, but neither can stop Anthony. It doesn’t matter which one will have the duty, they don’t have the size or experience to defend Melo one-on-one and will have to either rely on a double-team or Utah will have to play zone.
If Billups makes Williams work on defense it may be long series for the Jazz and short one for the Nuggets. Of course if Billups settles for the long bomb it will be a long series for both teams. And lets not forget that the playoffs are Mr. Big Shot’s time to shine and the Nuggets need that now more than ever.
Nene has struggled the last couple of games, but he needs to step up in the playoffs. In the three games the Nuggets won in the series, he averaged 18.3 points and in the lone loss he was held to only four.
Of course to start with he needs to get the ball in the post and when he does he can have a field day against Okur and Boozer, who are less than average defenders. Even when Millsap is on the floor he is too small to stop the Brazilian.
Afflalo and K-Mart could have a big series if they work off of double teams to get open shots. An occasional trey from Afflalo will help, but he has struggled against the Jazz because they don’t help off of him. K-Mart has been solid, but is still nursing an injury.
DEFENSE: While K-Mart, Nene and Afflalo will be counted on big time on the defensive side of the ball. Afflalo will have the tough duty of slowing Williams and while he can’t stop the young stud he can certainly make life tough on him. During the regular season Afflalo forced Williams into an average of four turnovers in the contest, but Williams still got his points.
K-Mart and Nene will try to shutdown Okur and Boozer. While Okur struggled against the Nuggets this season Boozer has been solid (16.8 points, 11.5 rebounds) but he is also slowed by an injury to start the playoffs.
Expect K-Mart to guard the much more versatile Okur and Nene guarding the Boozer in the paint. And if fouls occur or Boozer starts heating up, expect Nene or Birdman to switch out on Okur.
JAZZ GAME PLAN:
OFFENSE: If the Jazz know one thing about the Nuggets going into the playoffs, and I’m sure Sloan will make sure of it and that is the Nuggets are terrible against the pick-and-roll. And with the duo of Williams and Boozer, not to mention Okur’s outside shooting, Denver will see the pick-and-roll or the pick-and-pop a lot the next couple of weeks.
Boozer can shoot from the outside and also score with either hand in the post, while Williams can play quick and also slow the game down depending on the direction the game is going. However, if Denver can slow the dynamic duo, they pretty much have slowed half the Jazz offense.
The rest of the offense works off the duo, Korver and Okur’s are great outside shooters if left open and Matthews and Miles don’t create their own offense. Millsap can potentially have a good game due to his intelligence and rugged style. But none of them can take over a game (maybe Okur), they are all role players working with Williams and Boozer.
DEFENSE: Zone, zone and more zone. That will be the way the Jazz will stop the Nuggets. The Jazz’s defense has struggled to slow Denver this season (giving up an average of 106 points), mainly because they don’t matchup well with the Nuggets.
They don’t have a shot-blocker or even a physical defender to stop the Nuggets’ bigs, and without Kirilenko, Matthews and Williams are the Jazz top perimeter defenders.
And the best fix for all these mismatches is the zone and forcing the Nuggets inconsistent shooters to settle for jumpers. But if the Nuggets are on the Jazz are done; if they are off the Nuggets are done.
PREDICTION: Nuggets in 6
Both teams are limping into the playoffs, but the Nuggets just matchup too well with the Jazz. The only big advantage the Jazz have is Jerry Sloan and his coaching style, but the Nuggets can counter that with the home court advantage and a strong bench.
All photos the courtesy of Jonathan Maness
Topics: Adrian Dantley, Arron Afflalo, Carlos Boozer, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Chris Andersen, Denver Nuggets, Deron Williams, Jerry Sloan, JR Smith, Kenyon Martin, Mehmet Okur, NBA Playoffs Preview, Nene, Ty Lawson, Utah Jazz, Wesley Matthews