If it seems curious for the Utah Jazz to have specifically targeted a postseason series against the Denver Nuggets after going 0-3 against them during the regular season/seeding games schedule, well it is.
And yet apparently, that seemed like the best option, considering the alternatives.
Namely, no more Houston Rockets, please and thank you.
The Jazz clearly felt Houston’s five-out offensive style would be a bad matchup, given how thoroughly it diminishes the impact of Rudy Gobert. And so the Jazz sat out four starters vs. San Antonio; and three days later, all five starters took off the second half against Dallas. One Rockets loss and one Thunder win later, and that targeted sixth seed was theirs, making a potential matchup with Houston impossible until the Western Conference finals.
And yet, given that 0-3 mark against the Nuggets, are they really that much preferable an opponent?
Well, Utah is not taking Denver lightly, even if the Jazz apparently feel better about facing them.
“They’re a terrific team and they’ve shown that all year long,” said coach Quin Snyder. “They’re well-coached. The players know how to play together. They’ve got some special players. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’ll try to get prepared and get ready.”
OK, so naturally Snyder would call any opponent the Jazz are facing in the playoffs “a terrific team.” Thing is, though, the Nuggets legitimately have been.
Despite closing with three straight losses in the bubble, Denver finishes with a 46-27 mark that’s third-best in the Western Conference and sixth-best in the NBA. They are among the league leaders in field-goal percentage and assists per game. Their size and prowess inside makes among the league’s elite in offensive rebounding, second-chance points, and points in the paint. They have the second-most clutch wins and the fourth-best clutch plus/minus. They also far and away lead in points scored by second-rounders — evidence of their widely-admired depth.
Why again did the Jazz want to face this team?
OK, so yes, the Jazz technically had zero wins in three meetings with Denver. But they were right there in all three.
JAZZ VS. NUGGETS IN 2020
Utah went 0-3 vs. Denver in the regular season and seeding games. Here’s a look at how three losses went down:
Jan. 30, Nuggets 106, Jazz 100 • Jazz shoot 46.2%, 17-37 from 3, 11-17 FTs, 35 reb, 24 ast, 16 TO; Nuggets shoot 47.1%, 9-27 from 3, 17-21 FTs, 43 (8) reb, 25 ast, 9 TO. Key stretch: Nuggets go on a 27-1 over the end of the third/beginning of the fourth quarters to turn the game around.
Feb. 5, Nuggets 98, Jazz 95 • Jazz shoot 41.9%, 14-39 from 3, 9-14 FTs, 46 reb, 20 ast, 14 TO; Nuggets shoot 43.3%, 7-30 from 3, 13-18 FTs, 52 reb, 23 ast, 11 TO. Key stretch: Nuggets rally from 15 down in 3Q, 10 down in 4Q; Jazz commit 7 TOs in 4Q.
Aug. 8, Nuggets 134, Jazz 132 (2OT) • Jazz shoot 44.8%, 22-55 from 3, 16-22 FTs, 51 reb, 34 ast, 22 TO; Nuggets shoot 47.2%, 9-37 from 3, 23-30 FTs, 52 reb, 29 ast, 11 TO. Key stretch: Utah’s offense stagnates early in the fourth quarter, enabling Denver to rally from 18 down.
We all remember the 18-point lead they relinquished in what ultimately became a double-overtime loss less than a week ago, right? Well, the other two defeats followed that pattern of otherwise solid play being undone by one particularly wretched stretch.
Back on Jan. 30 in Denver, the Jazz were riding high on the energy of the recent All-Star selections of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. They were cruising right along. And then the Nuggets closed the third quarter on a 15-0 run. And opened the fourth on a 12-1 run. That 27-1 stretch effectively decided the 106-100 Denver victory.
And on Feb. 5, a 15-point lead in the third quarter was erased, Utah bounced back to rebuild a 10-point advantage in the fourth quarter — which was also erased, as a Nuggets team down to seven available players pulled out a 98-95 win that sent the Jazz reeling to their fifth consecutive defeat.
The way those games went, the Jazz are convinced that if they can keep it together for a full game, they’ve got a solid shot.
“Well, I think we’ve had spurts against Denver where we’ve looked really well. And during those spurts, we’ve had the combination of consistent defense, consistency on the offense end,” Mike Conley said after Friday’s practice. “If we’re able to do that for longer periods of time during these games, it gives us a better chance of winning.”
He specifically mentioned the need to keep the Nuggets off the offensive glass — Denver has averaged 11.0 O-rebs per game against the Jazz — especially in the fourth quarter in order to negate those second-chance opportunities they exploit so well.
Gobert agreed that all the right elements have been there, just not for long enough periods of time.
“We’ve just got to keep doing what we do. Do it for 48 minutes, do it harder, smarter, play defense, get stops, communicate with one another, and offensively, share the ball, move the ball,” he said. “And when we do that, I believe that we are very hard to guard.”
It’s largely true enough that Utah has had offensive success against Denver. They’ve averaged 26 assists per game vs. the Nuggets and hit a combined 53 of 131 tries from beyond the arc (40.4%).
Which just goes to show that getting those stops will be imperative.
Snyder has put an increased focus on forcing turnovers in the bubble, and that’s been an area where Utah has decidedly faltered in its trio of defeats to Denver: The Nuggets have averaged only 10.3 turnovers per game in those contests (while the Jazz have averaged more than 17).
“The biggest thing you can take away from those games is how we can turn up the pressure on the defensive end, just trying to find ways to make it tougher on them,” Mitchell said. “They do a good job making it tough on us.”
Game 1 • Monday, 11:30 a.m. MT, ESPN
Game 2 • Wednesday, 2 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 3 • Friday, 2 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 4 • Aug. 23, 7 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 5 • Aug. 25, time and TV TBD*
Game 6 • Aug. 27, time TBD, ESPN*
Game 7 • Aug. 29, time TBD, TNT