The last time these two teams met, we witnessed the Nuggets most impressive and improbable win of the season by far. Utah will be looking for some revenge.
The talk around town regarding our Nuggets has been their struggles against sub-.500 teams. By now, all die-hard fans are familiar with the shoddy squads the Nuggets have lost to: the Bucks, Clippers, Timberwolves, Pistons, 76ers and the Kings (gulp, twice). Conversely, other fans point to the Nuggets solid 7-2 record against the Western Conference's elite - wins over the Lakers, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Suns and Jazz (twice), losses to the Mavericks and Blazers - as a sign that the Nuggets just don't get up for bad teams.
But if you look past the wins and losses, a different story emerges. While the Nuggets were saddled with a punitive Western Conference high 22 back-to-back games, when it comes to playing the NBA's better teams at Pepsi Center they've been the beneficiaries of some very favorable scheduling. Not only were the Lakers, Rockets and Suns playing the second of a back-to-back when the Nuggets beat them at The Can, but so were the Eastern "elites" Atlanta and, most recently, Orlando. I don't care how good an opposing team is, I contend there's never an excuse for these Nuggets to lose (unless the roster is gutted due to injury) at home against a team coming in on the second of a back-to-back.
Alas, the Jazz are playing as I write this, meaning the Nuggets will face yet another "elite" opponent coming in on the second of a back-to-back. Which begs the question: am I ever going to watch a good game against a good team for the $135 per ticket I pay? (Obviously, I want the Nuggets to win no matter what. But the Suns game aside, every Nuggets home game against teams playing back-to-backs have been boring blowouts. I'm sorry, but that's the truth.)
Of course, assuming walkover victories is never advisable, so we'll scout out the Jazz nonetheless.
Watching them play Thursday at home against the Cavaliers, I thought I had been transported via a time machine back to 1983. Seeing those retro green jerseys, I thought I was going to see Adrian Dantley, Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith, John Drew, Rickey Green and the other members of those early Jazz teams (that, incidentally, bested the Nuggets in the 1984 playoffs first round) lace it up. Instead, it was the usual suspects we've gotten used to booing: Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko (and his annual bad hair cut) and Sundiata Gaines (pictured above).
Wait. Sundiata Gaines? Who the @#$% is Sundiata Gaines?
That's what I said as I watched this unheard of rookie, playing on a ten-day contract, sink the Cavaliers with nine points off the bench and an amazing three-point game-winning dagger in Williams' place. Williams sprained his wrist and was done for the night. Gaines stepped in admirably, held down the fort and led the Jazz to victory. After sinking that huge game-ending shot, his teammates might have been more excited than he was and it made for one of the better NBA stories we've seen all season. Something NBA fans desperately needed in the wake of the Gilbert Arenas fiasco.
But beyond Gaines' incredible make, what I was most impressed with was the Jazz's collective patience on that final shot that ended up in Gaines' hands. At least two of Gaines' teammates passed up on the game-ending three point attempt themselves as the Cavaliers played stingy perimeter defense. Instead of chucking up a bad shot (like most players on most teams would do), the disciplined Jazz worked the ball around until they found an open man...which just happened to be Gaines. Even though I'm supposed to hate our division rivals, I was impressed. Not atypical for a Jerry Sloan coached team.
In his nine minutes of playing time, Gaines was anything but a Stiff. Something we can't say for the rest of the Jazz.
SCOUTING THE JAZZ...
-Andrei Kirilenko: As much as I love his wife (hands down the nicest "NBA wife" I've ever met), I suspect even Masha Kirilenko would acknowledge that "AK47" is an overpaid Stiff at this point in his career. Owed $17.8 million next season, 'Drei's numbers continue to plummet across the board.
-Kyle Korver: Typically a player in the final year of his contract plays remarkably better than he did the season before. Not KK, who's averaging a career-low 4.5 ppg and is seeing just 10 minutes of playing time per game.
-Kosta Koufos: A 2008 first round draft pick by Utah, the 7'0", 265 pound Koufos barely sees any action and when he does, he doesn't produce.
-Kyrylo Fesenko: I figured all the Jazz players with a "K" to begin their first or last name belong on the Jazz's Stiff squad. Fesenko is a bona fide Stiff: 7'0" tall, 300 pounds and perhaps the goofiest white guy you'll see at the end of an NBA bench these days. God bless the Jazz and their insistence on having at least five white guys on their roster every season. I guess Rafael Araujo wasn't available this season.
-Carlos Boozer: Boozer took a lot of crap from Jazz fans over the summer due to his contract circumstances, but he's in great shape and playing well with 19.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg and a career-high 3.5 apg. I've long maintained had Boozer not bolted to Utah from Cleveland, LeBron James would have at least one championship ring by now.
-Deron Williams: If Tracy McGrady gets voted in as an All-Star Game starter, it's likely that DW will screwed out of an All-Star slot again (assuming the three back up guards would be Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups). If this continues, DW might go down in history as the best player never to make an All-Star team.
Photo courtesy of AP