Like most teams in the NBA, the Utah Jazz have not been the same team during the restart that they were during the regular season. And more change is coming still now, with point guard Mike Conley leaving the bubble to be with his family for the birth of his third child.
The thing is, though, change has come for everybody. Including the Jazz’s first-round playoff opponent, the Denver Nuggets.
Utah’s players and coaching staff have spent so much of their time in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., discussing the changes to their own team and how they’ve been impacted by the NBA bubble. On Sunday, though, about 24 hours ahead of Monday’s Game 1 tipoff, they got around to discussing how Denver’s been impacted, as well.
Notably, the Nuggets have been without two of their top wing players for the entirety of their seeding games, as Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (knee) have both been dealing with injuries. Not that the Jazz are closely monitoring Denver’s daily injury report.
“Obviously, the first thing is we’re going to play who’s in front of us. So whoever’s out there, if they end up bringing one of them back, two of them back, none of them back, we’ll play whoever’s out there,” said Joe Ingles. “But, I think from what everyone knew, they were obviously a little bit disrupted.”
Then again, the flip side to that has been additional opportunity for some younger guys — a premise the Jazz themselves are familiar with.
But while Utah has been testing the waters to see if Miye Oni or Jarrell Brantley can fill some small roles, the Nuggets have had some guys put forth legitimate breakout performances.
“Michael Porter Jr., he’s made some big strides. Playing [during] the season, it didn’t happen that often; but he’s come in here and having a great restart in the bubble games,” noted Jordan Clarkson. “You see Bol Bol, guys like that, really stepping up for them.”
Porter Jr., in particular, has been one of the bubble’s breakout stars. Though he’s averaging just 9.3 points per game for the season, in Orlando, he’s averaging 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds while shooting 55.1% from the field and 42.2% from 3-point range.
As a result of missing Harris and Barton and giving more minutes to the likes of Porter Jr., Torrey Craig, and Jerami Grant, and playing them alongside the likes of Nikola Jokic, former Jazz forward Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee, the Nuggets have become an extremely big team, one that feasts on offensive rebounds, second-chance points, and points in the paint.
“They’re very long, very athletic. They have a lot of guys that can finish around the rim,” said Rudy Gobert. “And we know that that’s our defensive DNA — protecting the paint and protecting the rim. We know that if we want to beat this team, we have to do this at the highest level.”
Of course, it’s not all been good news for the Nuggets — as evidenced by them dropping their final three games in the bubble, and five of their eight seeding games overall.
Among their key woes: Opposing teams shot better than 44% on 3-pointers against them, the worst rate in the bubble. And Denver’s ball-handling miscues led to opponents averaging 22.5 points off their turnovers, which was also the worst among the 22 teams in Florida. In all, the Nuggets slogged their way to a 121.7 defensive rating, which is — you guessed it — worst among all bubble teams.
“We just can’t stop anybody,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters losing to the Clippers in their seeding game finale. “We cannot have a mindset going forward that we’re going to outscore teams in the playoffs. That is a losing formula.”
Star guard Jamal Murray noted that the Nuggets simply are not communicating enough.
“We gotta talk more out there. There’s no crowd, there’s no fans, so we gotta be more vocal to each other and just talk things out,” he said. “… If we keep having lapses on defense like that, then something’s gotta give. I just think we gotta talk more and that’ll sort out a lot of issues.”
The Jazz said they can’t count on Denver’s defensive issues continuing, and they must prepare as though the Nuggets will have everything sorted out — in terms of both schemes and personnel.
“I don’t anticipate them having those struggles come playoff time,” said Donovan Mitchell. “… Guys will lock it in at a different level and a higher level. And I don’t know if they get Will and Gary back — I anticipate that they do — and I think they’ll be fine from there. I think they’ll be all right come playoff time, and that’s what we’re anticipating.”
Of course, the Jazz are also anticipating that with Bojan Bogdanovic out, and now Conley as well, that no one figures the Jazz will have much of a chance. They disagree.
“We understand what people are saying and where they have us at,” Conley said. “… Our mentality coming in, we might be viewed as underdogs, but we have confidence in ourselves and belief in ourselves that we can get it done.”
“We ain’t playing into the underdog [narrative] or none of that, whatever they’re saying we are,” he added. “…Definitely, I don’t feel like we an underdog. And I don’t think that’s the mindset around any of the team.”
Gobert, like his teammates, knows what the story is. And like them, he’s not buying into it. Lower seed, worse record, two stars missing … whatever. He still believes that they can shock the basketball world.
“Through all the things that we’ve been through as a team, right now I really feel like we really are finding ourselves. And I really like the dynamic that we’re on right now,” Gobert said. “Everyone’s on the same page. And I really feel like the best Jazz basketball is yet to come. We have a great opportunity ahead of us, and it’s on it’s on us to seize it.”
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*