Playoff Series Preview: Nuggets vs. Jazz

It’s official: The Denver Nuggets will face the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2019-2020 NBA playoffs.

Though both teams underperformed in the seeding games with 3-5 records, this series is going to be an exciting one to follow. This is the second consecutive playoff appearance for a young Nuggets core led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

Many Nuggets fans remember battling Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum last season in a 7-game series that included the longest playoff game since 1953. If Denver won that series last year it would’ve been the first time since 2009 that the Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals.

The Jazz, on the other hand, are appearing in their 4th straight postseason; their 3rd straight led by Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. It shouldn’t be mistaken that the Jazz are fueled and motivated to pounce on the Nuggets. Denver swept Utah in their season series 2-0, something Utah hopes to change in the next couple of days. However, Denver has something else in store for this postseason.

First things first, let’s compare Denver’s roster to Utah’s. On paper, Denver already has multiple advantages in the starting lineup. Jamal Murray is nine years younger than Mike Conley – who has struggled for a majority of the season everywhere on the court. Conley is averaging the lowest amount of points this season since his 2011-2012 lockout campaign and has shot the worst field goal percentage of his entire career (43%).

For someone who’s looked as old and has regressed as much physically as Mike Conley, Jamal Murray is going to dominate Conley on the offensive side of the ball. This season, in head-to-head matchups, Murray has dropped 31 and 23 points against Conley. Even with a small sample size, I’m pretty confident that Murray can have a high-scoring series.

The matchup between Royce O’Neale and Michael Porter Jr. is going to be a fun one to watch. O’Neale – arguably Utah’s best perimeter defender – has shown strides of becoming one of the league’s most underrated 3&D players. However, since O’Neale is only 6’4”, MPJ has a strict height advantage over shorter defenders. Porter’s size makes it easy to drive past and shoot over defenders like O’Neale. With Gobert focused on Jokic for basically the entirety of the series, O’Neale is going to be tasked with guarding the league’s hottest phenom. Already, Denver carries two huge advantages over Utah.

Utah’s biggest disadvantage isn’t in the starting lineup, it’s their depth. Losing Bojan Bogdonovic was a brutal loss for Utah and something that’s been bugging the Jazz throughout their time in the bubble. Bogdanovic started in all the games he’s appeared for Utah this year and is the best 3-point shooter on the roster, shooting 41% from 3-point range. To replace Bogdonovic, head coach Quin Snyder took Joe Ingles off the bench to rekindle the absence of their starting 3-point sniper.

Moving Ingles into the starting lineup was a necessary move, but it leaves Utah with few options coming off the bench. To put it short: the Utah Jazz bench is ugly. Jordan Clarkson (15 PPG and 2 APG) and Emmanuel Mudiay (7 PPG and 2 APG) are the replacement guards for Mitchell, Conley, and O’Neale. Tony Bradley (5 PPG and 4.5 RPG) is the backup center to relieve Gobert. Georges Niang (6 PPG and 40% from 3) can sub in and hit a shot or two.

Denver’s bench, on the other hand, is one of the best in the league. Just a couple nights ago against the Lakers, the Nuggets’ 3rd string reserves went toe-to-toe with arguably the best duo in the NBA – Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Adding Will Barton to an already deep bench is probably going to be as dangerous as it sounds for the Jazz.

Third string point guard P.J. Dozier has been playing the best basketball of his career so far averaging 10 PPG and 4 APG, shooting 43% from three in the bubble. Add those pieces to an already stacked rotation with Morris, Grant, and Craig, it’s going to bring hell to any front court in the league.

No one said playing Utah was going to be easy. Despite the fact that Denver has gone 2-0 in their season series against Utah, the Jazz have given problems to the Nuggets on multiple occasions. Statistically, Utah is the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA. Ingles, Niang, Mitchell, and O’Neale are all good catch-and-shoot players. Denver defenders have to be aware of screens from Gobert and Bradley that tend to create space for Utah’s players to hit open shots.

The Nuggets are 17th in the league in defending the 3-point line, but recently it feels like Denver should be a lot lower in that ranking. Against opposing offenses, the Nuggets like to crawl back into the paint, for defensive help to stop a driving player, which usually leaves an open man on the wing for an open 3-point shot. When guarding a player like Donovan Mitchell, who loves to drive, perimeter defenders cannot sag into the paint to help stop the drive. Not against a highly proficient 3-point shooting team like Utah.

Stopping Mitchell is a different story. There have been moments throughout the seeding games where he has looked utterly immortal. Against the Nuggets in seeding games, Mitchell scored 35 points along with 8 assists as the Jazz almost beat Denver in an overtime game. Donovan was solely the reason Utah survived the showdown, hitting clutch shots in overtime and dishing out important assists.

If Mitchell is performing at a very high level in the series, it would make a lot of sense to double team him. For example, take Damian Lillard – the best basketball player in the world right now. In Portland’s last seeding game, Brooklyn double teamed Dame for a majority of the game. Double teaming didn’t force any turnovers or create any bad shots, it just took the ball out of his hands and Brooklyn worried about someone else creating damage. I’m not suggesting that Murray and Craig double team Mitchell every possession of course, but when Mitchell gets hot, I’d rather him pass the ball to Mike Conley.

As good of a player that Gobert is, he is simply not a threat on offense and is better used as a lob threat. Jokic can guard him individually as he isn’t much of a post scorer, but can certainly be dangerous on both the offensive and defensive glass. On the defensive side of the floor, Gobert is Utah’s anchor. The entirety of their defense is surrounded by Gobert – the two time Defensive Player of the Year.

He moves higher on opposing pick-and-rolls, which delays the roller’s ability to drive down the court. His length makes it difficult for players to comfortably take a shot or floater, and it isn’t always easy to throw passes into the paint. Though Gobert is an elite defender, Jokic has no trouble scoring or play-making against the 7’0” Frenchman. This season, the Joker dropped 30 and 28 points against Gobert – a true testament to “the best center in the league” debate.

I’m just as excited as you are to watch this wonderful playoff series. I have the Nuggets winning in 6 games.

Series Schedule:

Monday, August 17th, 11:30 AM  – Game 1 on ESPN

Wednesday, August 19th, 2:00 PM  – Game 2 on TNT

Friday, August 21st, 2:00 PM  – Game 3 on TNT

Sunday, August 23rd, 7:00 PM  – Game 4 on TNT

Tuesday, August 25th, TBD – Game 5

Thursday, August 27th, TBD – Game 6 on ESPN

Saturday, August 29th, TBD – Game 7 on TNT