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Preview: Denver tries to help Houston by beating Utah

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The Rockets are playing like they want to miss the playoffs and keep their draft pick, but Denver has a chance to help spoil that plan by beating the Jazz and shaking up the playoff picture

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz come to Denver desperate to avoid disaster.  They are currently in the 8th spot, just one ahead of Houston, but the tie-breaker remains unsettled between them and a loss to Denver would put Utah in a precarious position heading into their crucial matchup with Dallas.

Conversely, Denver has nothing to play for in theory, but winning this game would be a huge step toward helping Houston make the playoffs - and Denver getting Houston's draft pick. Until Houston finishes their choke job, keep hope alive - and the best way to do that is to beat the Utah Jazz on Sunday.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (39-40) at Utah Jazz (33-47)

When: 3:00 p.m.

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO

How to Watch/Listen: Altitude TV/104.3 FM

Rival Blog: SLC Dunk

Utah Jazz Denver Nuggets Advantage
PG Raul Neto Emmanuel Mudiay Nuggets
SG Rodney Hood Gary Harris Even
SF Gordon Hayward JaKarr Sampson Jazz
PF Derrick Favors Nikola Jokic Even
C Rudy Gobert Jusuf Nurkic Jazz
Bench

Joe InglesTrevor BookerTrey Lyles,Trey BurkeJeff Withey

Will BartonD.J. Augustin, Axel ToupaneJoffrey LauvergneMike MillerDarrell ArthurKenneth Faried Even

Injured players: Darrell Arthur - questionable (knee), Danilo Gallinari - out (ankle),Wilson Chandler - out (hip) Alec Burks, fibula (out), Dante Exum, ACL (out)

Key Matchup: Balkan Towers / Balkan Front / Jurkic (Jerkic?) combo vs. Favors and Gobert. Things went well for the Nurkic/Jokic combo in their first significant action of the season together, as they were +17 as a tandem against the San Antonio Spurs.  They weren't exactly facing scrubs either, as West/Duncan remains a formidable combo.  Their next test is just as serious, with Favors and Gobert forming a wall that has stifled Denver's offense this season.  Denver has scored just 84 points a contest against Utah this season, and they'll have  to do significantly better than that to avoid the sweep by the Jazz.

The Jurkic combo is still very rough, but there were definitely highlights in their first game starting on the same court.  The behind-the-head pass from Nurkic to Jokic was pretty brilliant, and their defensive switches got less ugly as the game went on.  Honestly the guards (specifically Mudiay) had more trouble getting the switches right when the Bosnian and the Serbian were on the court together.  Someone is going to have to slow Heyward in this contest, something no one has really done this season  for Denver even when Gallinari was healthy, but if Denver's front court can out-perform Utah's, Denver's got a shot.

One thing to watch:  JaKarr Sampson. As I said above, nobody has slowed Heyward (20+ points a contest against Denver this year) but JaKarr needs to be the first if Denver's got a shot.  He had a really good game against the Spurs (16 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block and just one turnover) and played within himself for once, instead of overloading on athletic effort and forgetting the skills-and-smarts parts of basketball.  Heyward is a tough cover, and very much a Gallinari clone on the court.  JaKarr will have to defend without fouling and remember his offense in order to give Denver some wing support in this one.

Prediction: 96-94 Denver in a closely-fought game, decided by Denver's bench showing up in the fourth for a recent change and by Denver's starters giving Utah fits in ways they have not seen either in person and on film this year.  All hail the Balkan Towers.