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Rocky Mountain rivalry renewed (Nuggets/Jazz playoff preview)...

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Reports of the Nuggets sudden demise (by people like me) have been greatly exaggerated.  The Nuggets are winning this series against their Rocky Mountain rivals.

About a week ago, my good friend Chris Tomasson of Fanhouse (formerly of the Rocky Mountain News) asked me an interesting question that had an objective answer: "What was the biggest Nuggets win of the season?"  

My first answer was "at Oklahoma City on April 3rd.  The Nuggets were slipping in the standings, the Thunder were rising and Adrian Dantley hadn't won a big game yet.  That game saved our season."  "Nope," retorted Tomasson.  My second guess: "at Los Angeles Lakers on February 5th.  No Carmelo Anthony.  Friday night nationally televised game.  Chauncey goes for 39 points.  Biggest win of the year."  "Nah.  Not even close," said Tomasson.  "I've got it!" I countered.  "At Cleveland on February 18th.  Nuggets win in overtime on the floor of the NBA's best team.  Melo hits the game winner over LeBron.  That was it."  

"Nope," again says Tomasson.  I was completely befuddled at this point.  Giving up on my lack of fandom, Tomasson unveiled the correct answer: "at Utah on January 2nd.  No Chauncey.  No Melo.  Nuggets go into Utah and win, basically securing the season series.  That game made all the difference between 53 wins and 52 wins, and the difference between home court and playing on the road in the playoffs.  Biggest win of the season."

Tomasson was dead on.  Thanks to that victory soon into the new year, I get to watch the Nuggets play the Jazz from the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center tomorrow night instead of watching from my couch.  And by starting out at home instead of Energy Solutions Arena, combined with an injury report that severely favors our Nuggets, this series isn't lasting long.  Here's a category-by-category breakdown for why the Nuggets are winning this series...

Health_mediumHEALTH

For a team that's weathered it's share of injuries all season long, the Nuggets are surprisingly (relatively) healthy at the right time while several key Jazz players are dropping like flies due to an assortment of injuries (and yet most of the ESPN "experts" have the gall to pick the Jazz to win anyway...more on those predictions throughout).  For a thorough report on the Jazz's health issues and how they're dealing with them, I recommend reading the latest injury report from The Deseret News' Tim Buckley.  Here are the CliffsNotes: small forward Andrei Kirilenko is out for the entire series after re-injuring his strained left calf, power forward Carlos Boozer might play in Game 1 but is dealing with a strained right-side oblique (Boozer claims he's "going to play this weekend, no matter what") and center Mehmet Okur will play in spite of having left Achilles tendinitis, requiring a pre-game injection.  Ouch.

On the Nuggets side of the health ledger, power forward Kenyon Martin continues to recover from left knee tendinitis.  K-Mart looked pretty damn good against the Spurs and Grizzlies on both ends of the floor, but his Matador-style defense against Amar'e Stoudemire and the Suns showed us that he's nowhere near 100%.  It's been discussed all season long that Chris "Birdman" Andersen has knee tendinitis and he recently hurt his ankle against the Trail Blazers, but missed just two games.  ADVANTAGE: NUGGETS

Momentum_mediumMOMENTUM

While no Jerry Sloan-coached team will use injuries as an excuse, it's undeniable that the Jazz have been affected by these ailments.  Prior to their final six games, the Jazz had won 12 of 16 games.  But in their final six games, the Jazz lost three - including drubbings to the Lakers (who couldn't be playing any worse), the Rockets (who had nothing to play for) and the Suns (at Utah, with home court advantage on the line).  And Boozer was healthy for four of those six games.

As has been well documented here and elsewhere, the Nuggets played their worst basketball of the season over their final 13 games (thank you, Adrian Dantley).  The Nuggets dropped seven of their final 13 games, including big time losses to Western Conference competition like the Mavericks, Spurs and Suns.  And among their final six wins, only one - at Oklahoma City as mentioned above - was notable.  Yes, they beat the Blazers and Lakers at home, but the Blazers were playing a back-to-back and the Lakers didn't have Kobe Bryant...and still almost won the game.  Last I checked Kobe makes a bit of a difference.  

The bottom line is that if either Utah or Denver had to face a team playing well right now (like Dallas, Phoenix or San Antonio) I wouldn't like their chances.  But since they've stumbled upon each other in the first round, there's no momentum disadvantage at play here.  ADVANTAGE: EVEN

Pointguard_mediumPOINT GUARD

When you have a top-three NBA point guard as the Nuggets do in Chauncey Billups, the advantage at the one-spot is normally yours.  Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they're facing one of the two teams in the NBA that has a better point guard than we do right now (I'm excluding Chris Paul because he was hurt all season).  So while it breaks my heart to say this, the Jazz have a slight advantage at the point guard position with Deron Williams.

Shaking off an early season injury, Williams had yet another fabulous season, averaging 18.7 ppg on a very respectable 46.9% shooting, 10.5 apg and 1.3 spg while guiding the Jazz to a 53-win season even though Kirlilenko missed 24 games, C.J. Miles missed 19, Okur missed nine, starting two-guard Ronnie Brewer was traded before the deadline and Williams has been playing beside an undrafted rookie in the starting back court.  

Billups was no slouch, though, and was arguably having his best pro season ever until about 15 games ago when he started looking worn out (forget how Billups looked, he didn't shoot over 50% from the field once in his final 15 games).  Prior to that stretch of games, Billups routinely came up huge in the absence of Melo as we saw when the Nuggets beat the Lakers in LA and Cleveland at Denver while Melo was wearing a suit.  All in, Billups had a stellar season: a career-high 19.6 ppg and a solid 5.6 apg while leading the Nuggets to 53 wins in spite of the loss of head coach George Karl to cancer treatments.  Oh, and it just happened to be the ninth consecutive time that a Billups-led team has won at least 50 regular season games.  (SLIGHT) ADVANTAGE: JAZZ

Shootingguard_mediumSHOOTING GUARD

Wesley Matthews is the starting two-guard for the Jazz.  I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I remember when Wesley's father Wes played backup shooting guard for the Lakers team that swept the Nuggets 3-0 in the first round of the 1987 NBA Playoffs.  The younger Matthews took over the starting position when the Jazz traded Ronnie Brewer to Memphis in a salary dump deal and has played admirably considering he's an undrafted rookie!

Even though Matthews is an amazing story by NBA standards, he's no Arron Afflalo.  Often going unnoticed, Afflalo may have been the biggest steal of the offseason by any NBA team.  Not only is Afflalo's the Nuggets best perimeter defender, but he's turned himself into a reliable three-point shooter, making 43.4% of his attempts behind the arc, eighth best in the NBA.  ADVANTAGE: NUGGETS

Smallforward_mediumSMALL FORWARD

At small forward, the Jazz start C.J. Miles; a second round pick whose 2009-10 game high was 26 points.  Conversely, the Nuggets start Carmelo Anthony, whose 2009-10 game high was 50 points and if he scores 26, it's below his average.  

Before injuring his ankle in late January and subsequently deciding not to take the ball to the rack consistently and get to the free throw line, Melo was having an MVP-caliber season.  Instead, he ended up having another great season, leading the Nuggets to their seventh consecutive playoff appearance during his tenure in the Mile High City.  Complaints about Melo's (lack of) defense and unwillingness to get to the free throw line as much as we'd like are justifiable.  But I'll gladly take Melo's 28.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, career-high 83% FT shooting and 8.9 FT attempts per game any day of the week.

Melo is an absolute stud.  Miles is a journeyman.  (HUGE) ADVANTAGE: NUGGETS

Powerforward_mediumPOWER FORWARD

Before missing 18 games with left knee tendinitis, the talk around Nuggets Nation was that Kenyon Martin was the team's true MVP.  When Melo went down with an ankle injury and missed eight games in late January and early February, K-Mart filled the void with increased scoring and rebounding numbers, including five straight double-doubles.  But most unfortunately, the K-Mart we have today isn't the K-Mart we had back then - at least not health-wise. 

K-Mart's counterpart on the Jazz, Carlos Boozer, is also banged up.  But prior to the Jazz's final two games, Boozer scored at least 18 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds in nine straight games.  Often injured, Boozer appeared in 78 games this season and averaged 19.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg and shot a career best 56.2% from the field.  When healthy, Boozer is one of the NBA's best power forwards and has played well historically against the Nuggets, even with the stingy K-Mart defending him.  ADVANTAGE: JAZZ

Center_mediumCENTER

The Nuggets Nene has been criticized a lot lately for being soft and coming up empty in big games.  Fortunately for Nene, his opposing center - Mehmet Okur - is the very definition of soft (and he's hurt), so I don't foresee Nene having too many problems getting his shots against the Jazz.  During the regular season, Nene had three very good games against Utah but disappeared in the fourth and final game which, naturally, was one the Nuggets needed him in the most as Melo and Chauncey were unable to play.

Despite playing with a sore Achilles all season long, Okur put up very respectable numbers but played poorly against the Nuggets in all four matchups.  I like Nene to win this matchup over Okur.  ADVANTAGE: NUGGETS

Bench_mediumBENCH

When Kirilenko plays, the Jazz have a much deeper bench because Miles comes in as the seventh man.  But with Kirilenko out, the Jazz go just three deep off the pine: Paul Millsap, Ronnie Price and Kyle Korver.  That said, Millsap would likely start at power forward on most NBA teams, so having him come in to spell Boozer and Okur is a huge bonus.  Similarly, the Nuggets have a starter-caliber player off their bench in J.R. Smith to go along with Chris Andersen, Ty Lawson and - sometimes - Anthony Carter, Joey Graham and Johan Petro.  

With rotations expected to tighten in the postseason (I hope AD knows this), look for Andersen to up against Millsap, Smith versus Korver and Lawson versus Price.  Since Lawson is better than Price, I'm giving the Nuggets a slight edge here...but that's with the caveat of AD playing Lawson more minutes than AC like he should.  (SLIGHT) ADVANTAGE: NUGGETS

Ad_mediumCOACH

Even though he coaches our main division rival, Jerry Sloan is my favorite non-Nuggets coach in the NBA.  The no-excuses Sloan is a tough-nosed, old-school coach whose "my way or the highway" approach has worked for more than two decades now.  The fact that the Jazz hit the 53-win plateau is yet another testament to how good Sloan is, and the fact that he's never won a Coach of the Year Award is an absolute travesty.

And in this corner...we have Adrian Dantley.  Even though the Nuggets players have (correctly) come to their interim head coach's defense lately, I'm still suspect of Dantley's ability to put together a solid game plan and then execute it properly after tipoff.  Under Dantley, the Nuggets finished 11-8 by essentially winning all but two (home against Milwaukee, at New York) of the games they were supposed to win and losing all but one (at Oklahoma City) of the games they were supposed to lose.  It's fair to assume that under Karl the Nuggets would have found a way to win those crucial 54 and 55th games.  But when all was said and done the Nuggets finished just a game off last season's record and Dantley deserves some credit for getting us there.

Beyond the current Nuggets vs. Jazz matchup, there's the back story of Dantley's days as a a member of the Jazz which ended on very negative terms thanks to a contract holdout and other lingering issues.  Fanhouse's Tomasson details the Dantley Era with the Jazz, which led to a controversial trade to Detroit for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson.  While he won't publicly admit it, Dantley would love to exact some revenge on his former team.  And as long as he plays his cards right, he'll get that chance.  Nevertheless, I'll take Jerry Sloan to coach my team over Adrian Dantley any day of the week.  ADVANTAGE: JAZZ

THE VERDICT

Six of the ten "experts" over at ESPN are picking the Jazz to win this series, including John Hollinger who is ludicrously picking Utah to go to the conference finals.  Make that seven of 11 now that Bill Simmons is predicting the Jazz to win, too.  These guys must not be able to read an injury report.

If this series was being played a few weeks ago, I could see Utah being the favorite.  But today the Jazz are more banged up and run down than our Nuggets are, and are playing equally bad basketball in big games.  Therefore, given the Nuggets advantage in health and home court advantage, the Nuggets are winning this series in five games.

GO NUGGETS!!

 

Photos courtesy of AP and Getty Images