You all know by now that I'm a fan of "B-movies" ... continuing that theme, let's take a look at this series Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino style--through the 1997 film The Devil's Advocate. Joking...joking. I'll spare you that much, but we will tackle this series Devil's Advocate style. One man that will tip the scale for or against Denver is Kenyon Martin.
It's always important to be fair and balanced in jouralism, at least that's what they told me. Do I follow those same principles now that I'm a blogger? I am allowed and sometimes encouraged to say whatever the heck I please, yet I find myself still trying to find a balance ... trying to build a balance. (Who can name that song?)
So, for the sake of being at least balanced I'm going to sit back, put on my white wig, judge the Nuggets chances from two sides. Here we go ...
They say it's not how you start, but rather how you finish. The Nuggets will be facing one of the hottest teams in the NBA and a team that found it's groove as the season progressed. On January 8, 2010 the Utah Jazz had a very mediocre 19-17 record. A .500 team in the Western Conference wasn't going to make the playoffs, just ask the Grizzlies. What a difference a day makes, starting January 9th the Jazz ripped off a 9 game win streak and turned that into a 17-3 stretch until Feburay 22nd. The Jazz were now 36-20 and very much in the hunt for one of the top spots out West. The Jazz would go on to finish the season with another run of 17 wins and just 9 losses to finish 53-29. So, Utah turned in a very impressive 34-12 record since January 8th to save their season.
The most impressive part to the turnaround in Utah's season? They did it without adding any significant players via a trade. Yes, the Jazz did make some trades, but they were subtracting talent and it turned into addition through subtraction ... where have we heard that before ... cough ... Camby ... cough ... Marcus Camby ... cough ... sorry. I am a firm believer in the team concept and how it relates to success on the basketball court and there is no doubt that the Jazz have come together as a team.
The Nuggets didn't make a lot of personel moves from this season to last ... we all know that. But something about last year's squad just seemed a little bit different, like they enjoyed playing together just a little bit more. This year we have seen the loss of guys to injury, we've seen guys playing through obvious pain, George Karl's presence is missed, Kenyon Martin's car was filled with popcorn and he didn't laugh it off, Adrian Dantley has scoffed at questions about J.R. Smith being J.R. Smith and as rotations have been fluctuating we've heard a little chatter from Joey Graham about wanting more minutes and there has to be some frustration from both Ty Lawson and Anthony Carter about wanting to contribute more as both players have stepped in and stepped up at times. Maybe with more pressure comes less fun. Last year Denver was a feel good story, but this season it will be a disappointment if the Nuggets don't reach new heights and the players seem to know it. The NBA is all about taking advantage of an open window and the Nuggets know their window will not stay open forever.
Taking advantage of your opportunity has a little something to do with being able to control who you are and when you want to jump at said chance. The Nuggets have been such a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team this season that they've only demonstrated that they are not always in control of the moment. Being a superior team at home and a completely inconsistent team on the road may be this team's demise. Winning on the road will have to be done in this Utah series and if Denver is able to advance they probably will not get another series with home court advantage, making road games even more vital. But if you can win in Utah, you can win anywhere and Denver has won in Utah this season.
If Denver were able to somehow take their home game on the road they would be able to breeze through games. The Nuggets have the same issues on the road and in their losses. It baffles me that they cannot figure out how to stop the same things from happening.
Today in the Denver Post Benjamin Hochman quoted Adrian Dantley saying,"We're 43-7 with 20 assists or more. Sometimes we like to go one-on-one and we don't get the assists."
That means the Nuggets are just 10-22 when they record 19 assists or less. When the Nuggets go into one-on-one mode they allow their opponents more possessions and Denver often wastes a lot of key opportunities with wasted shots and rushed possessions.
When things start going wrong for the Nuggets it just snowballs and the whole team catches the sickness that seems to move from man-to-man. Speaking of man-to-man ... the Utah Jazz led the NBA in assists and the Nuggets lead the league (unofficially) in switching their cover man. Denver has had trouble for years with defensive rotations and with being able to fight through screens. For some reason the Nuggets have decided to implement a primarily switching defense and it tends to work in the fact that it doesn't work. Against Utah, you must have strong rotations because they are always looking for the open man.
There will be a lot of pitfalls when the Nuggets open the series this weekend against the Jazz and lots of things could go wrong for the Nuggets. If the Jazz are able to break home court, the Nuggets could be in serious trouble. The Jazz are a very good home team and a very mediocre road team. If the teams just trade home games that will help the Nuggets, but road teams fight like hell in games one and two to try to break serve so to speak.
Will the Nuggets come out with a different fire now that the playoffs are here? Will Denver fall into some of the bad habits they showed during the season? Can the defense step up? Will Kenyon Martin's knee hold up? Will Chauncey Billups' legs be well rested? Can Dantley hang with Jerry Sloan and his in-game adjustments? The Nuggets have a lot of questions to answer and if they don't take care of a good portion of them early it could spell doom for a team with so much promise, hope and expectations.
In the post season seven game series come down to match ups. The Nuggets do not match up as well with the Phoenix Suns as they do with the Utah Jazz. It's funny because Utah and Phoenix, while they run different styles, are really not too much different from one another. (Hang with me!)
Deron Williams is Utah's Steve Nash, a point guard who can score and who can get his teammates involved in the game at the same time. He does this without you even noticing that he's dominating the game. Mehmet Okur is Utah's Channing Frye, the center who can rebound, but prefers to make a living out on the perimeter and can be deadly if left open. Carlos Boozer is Utah's Amare Stoudemire, the lone legitimate inside scoring threat that can play bigger than he really is and becomes a major headache as defenders can't stop the predictable moves. The Jazz, like the Suns, also feature specific role players that don't try to do too much, but do what they are asked to do very well. But for whatever reason, the Jazz do not bother the Nuggets like the Suns do. Utah does like to get out and run a little bit, but not like Phoenix and they will allow the Nuggets to dictate the pace of some games.
With pace comes altitude. Each team uses their geographical surroundings to their advantage. Denver has one big advantage when playing Utah that other teams do not have ... Denver negates Utah's altitude advantage, Salt Lake City sits at roughly 4,320 feet. So, whatever edge that gives Utah doesn't hurt the boys from 5280, but at the same time the Jazz are not prone to Denver's high altitude either. And when you are talking about big mountains you often think of 7-footers in basketball, the kinds of guys who drive fear into their opponent just knowing they have a mountain to guard every night.
The Nuggets are not the best rebounding team in the league, but they do not have to worry about really being out-lengthed (oh ya made up words) by the Jazz big men. Utah's big men include Andrei Kirilenko, Paul Millsap, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. The Nuggets are not a very long team either and Utah's desire to rebound can be negated a bit with Denver's athletic bigs and the newfound rebounding ability of its guards Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith.
It's always been important for the Nuggets to feel a swagger over their opponent and frankly, Denver has that swagger with Utah. Yes, Denver won the season series 3-1 and yes, this is the playoffs so you can throw that record out the window. The Nuggets and Jazz just each need to win four games in this series. But having a bit of a mental advantage can give you the feeling you have and edge, and the confidence that comes with that cannot be overlooked ... especially with these Nuggets. Utah is a very good team, as good as Denver record wise and you all know how much Denver liked playing big games this season.
The Nuggets may have struggled against weaker opponents this year and they certainly had a couple teams that had their number (Kings and Suns), but Denver was always up for the big games this season. We will now see a theory discussed by Denver Stiffs readers put to the test. Will the Nuggets show up for the playoffs because they are all big games against quality opponents? A lot of us think they will and you can count me among them. The Nuggets know what is at stake and they know what is expected of them.
If Denver can do what is expected of them then they will get a nice reward ... the return of their general, George Karl. Enough can't be said for the Nuggets somewhat secretly wanting to advance past this series so that they can see their coach again. Karl might be well enough to rejoin the team after this series and you can bet your sweet ass the players know this and have made it a goal to win for Karl. We might see some very inspired basketball from the Nuggets.
With plenty to play for and with a good draw in the first round of the 2010 playoffs I expect the Nuggets to advance in this series. Utah is a very good team, a very dangerous team and a team that plays well together in a system that is older than many or perhaps even all of them.
Much like the New Orleans Hornets series last year, I think Chauncey Billups will carry the Nuggets into the second round by any means necessary. Billups is crafty and can score with the best of them or he can take himself out of the game for the good of his team and become an opportune assist man. While Billups doesn't rack up big assist numbers, it's almost as if his unselfishness is a sign to the rest of the team to start passing the ball. Carmelo Anthony should have a monter series and if Kirilenko isn't able to return to the Jazz at full strength he could be more of a detriment to the team since he'll be tasked with slowing Melo down. AK47 missed 15 of the team's final 17 games with a calf injury and must figure out a way to work himself back into shape while trying to stop one of the best scorers in the league.
This is the perfect team for Nene to get tough against. Without an imposing inside presence, the Brazilian can become a factor. An X-Factor for the Nuggets comes in the form of Ty Lawson. The rookie feasted off the Jazz this season, but he is just a rookie and his playing time will be spotty if Dantley can't trust him. But Lawson's ability to get into the lane and to find open teammates at impossible angles should earn him some burn in this series. The team plays well with Lawson at the helm and they play fast. Swish and Lawson have developed some great chemistry on the floor and that can carry Denver during some slow stretches. If Kenyon Martin can stay on the floor he'll bother both Boozer and Millsap and we all know he's not afraid to send a message in the post season about scoring in his lane. Yes, his lane.
This wont be an easy series for either team and breaking home court could lead to one team turning this whole series around. I'm going with the Nuggets being able to break home court first and I'll take Denver in 5 hard fought games.
Photo courtesy of: Christian Petersen/Getty Images, Getty Images and AP Photos