Point guard: Donovan Mitchell vs. Jamal Murray
With Mike Conley missing the Jazz’s first few games due to the birth of his son, I expect the Jazz will slot Mitchell in as the point guard. Mitchell has said he wants to facilitate first, score second in this matchup, so it’s a role that fits his intentions. Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Murray brings solid averages of 18 points, five assists, and four rebounds per game.
Shooting guard: Jordan Clarkson vs. Torrey Craig
Jordan Clarkson is mostly known as a sixth man, but could have to start with Conley out. He and Craig are polar opposites in their positions: Clarkson is the smooth scorer but slight defender, while Craig typically defends the opposition’s best player without scoring much. I expect these two positions to cross match on one end of the floor, so Craig will defend Mitchell.
Small forward: Joe Ingles vs. Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. came into the bubble blazing, with two 30-point scoring bursts in just the Nuggets’ second and third games in Orlando. He made the All-Bubble second-team, standing 6-10 with a versatile scoring game while also getting a ton of rebounds. Ingles is a secondary playmaker for the Jazz while providing spacing on the perimeter for everything else the Jazz do.
Power forward: Royce O’Neale vs. Paul Millsap
Seven years after leaving Utah, Paul Millsap is still showing off his well-rounded, versatile game for the Nuggets. He can score from inside and out, shooting 43% from 3-point range this year. Meanwhile, Royce O’Neale is a defensive specialist with a low-usage but fluid offensive game: the Jazz will need for him to take and make open threes.
Center: Rudy Gobert vs. Nikola Jokic
This is the matchup that will bring huge national interest. Jokic has bested Gobert in matchups recently, thanks to his incredibly skilled game — he’s probably the best passing big man of all time and likely second-team All-NBA. But Gobert has the chance to set the record straight: if he outplays Jokic in this series, he’ll be respected as a first-tier NBA center. It’ll be must-see TV.
The Jazz have a rough bench in the best of times, and with Conley and Bogdanovic out, it’s even thinner. They’re going to have to rely on mediocre, young NBA veterans or take a chance with rookie second-round picks. We don’t yet know the status of Gary Harris or Will Barton, but the rest of Denver’s bench are each among the best backups at their respective positions in the league.
Quin Snyder is one of the most well-respected coaches in the league, thanks to his Xs and Os that his competition frequently copies into their own playbooks. He always has wrinkles ready in a seven-game series. Mike Malone has drawn the ire of some Nuggets fans for his rotations, but now that Michael Porter Jr. is in the starting lineup, some of those concerns have fallen by the wayside.
With Conley and Bogdanovic out, the Jazz will need to rely more than ever before on their two stars, Mitchell and Gobert, while getting key contributions from bench players in new situations. The 12th-ranked Jazz defense has the potential to be better than that, and they’ll need to be in order to have a chance in this series. The Nuggets, though, are deep, well-rounded, versatile, and big. They even have a new rising star X-factor in Michael Porter Jr. to give the Jazz problems. They’re the favorites, and given their solid play this season, they deserve to be.
Prediction: Nuggets in 6.