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Preview: Utah Jazz come to Denver to face Nuggets

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There’s a second-round playoff preview tomorrow night at the Pepsi Center - but let’s not get ahead of ourselves

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets play host to the Utah Jazz, one night after Utah gave up 30 in the final frame to drop a 2-point heartbreaker to Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both teams are looking to get back on track after tough losses to evenly-matched foes, but Denver will have to step up its game to take this one.

The Jazz had been streaking, having won six in a row before last night’s loss, and roll into Denver feeling good about the state of their season and their franchise. Their owner just placed the team in a legacy trust to ensure it stays in Utah in perpetuity, while the Nuggets are finally beginning to remind Denver that they exist and are one again playing a fun brand of basketball. Utah brings a pair of reserve All-Star candidates to town in Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert, while Denver counters with one of the league’s best young centers in Nikola Jokic.

Both teams will be a bit tired, with the Jazz on their 4th game in 5 nights and the Nuggets playing their 6th in 9. Only one team plays defense, though, as Utah has the lowest points-allowed mark in the league while Denver gives away points like they are business cards at a sales convention. If the game comes down to late-game execution, the Nuggets have been on the short end of that stick too many times already this year. They’ll need to score in bunches and defend for at least two quarters (which is two more than normal for them) to get this victory.

The Basics

Who: Utah Jazz (29-17) at Denver Nuggets (18-25)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO

How to watch/listen: Altitude TV and Altitude radio AM 950

Rival blog: SLC Dunk (one of my favorite team site names)

Position Nuggets Jazz Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson George Hill Jazz
SG Gary Harris Joe Ingles Nuggets
SF Danilo Gallinari Gordon Hayward Jazz
PF Kenneth Faried Derrick Favors Even
C Nikola Jokic Rudy Gobert Even
Bench Will Barton, Darrell Arthur, Jamal Murray, Jusuf Nurkic, Juancho Hernangomez Trey Lyles, Alec Burks, Joe Johnson, Dante Exum, Boris Diaw, Jeff Withey Even

Injured players: Darrell Arthur - probable (knee), Gary Harris - probable (ankle), Emmanuel Mudiay - questionable (back), Rodney Hood - questionable (knee).

Key matchup: Rudy Gobert vs. Nikola Jokic. Jokic has been a revelation over the past 5 weeks, but Gobert is riding a high of his own. He had 27 points and 25 rebounds in an overtime win against Dallas last week, leads the league in blocks per game and is a strong candidate for the DPOY award. Jokic leads the league in PER this month while the Nuggets have put up a blistering 125.1 ORTG since he took over the in the starting lineup, so he can definitely hold his own - but he’ll need to avoid making it a one-on-one matchup.

In theory using Jokic to pull Gobert out of the paint would be a good way to free up the basket from the looming shadow of the Stifle Tower, but the Jazz can easily counter by putting Favors on Jokic much the way that the Los Angeles Lakers used Julius Randle early on in their last matchup with Denver. Favors is a bigger PF than Randle and Jokic can’t really blow by people on the perimeter unless they give him the opening. How the Nuggets choose to attack the paint and the shot blocker Gobert will be key in this matchup, and Jokic may be better suited as a facilitator in Gobert’s destruction rather than as the implement.

One thing to watch: can Denver finally take advantage a team on a back-to-back? Salt Lake is also at altitude, though not as high as Denver, so the thin air itself won’t scare them and neither will the short trip. Denver’s offensive output has begun to turn the tide back in its favor on the home court, and a win would bring the Pepsi Center record back to .500 for the season after a dreadful start.

Both teams will be tired in this one, but Denver will have the extra day of rest and be playing at home. This is when an attacking mentality can help disrupt a stronger defensive team, especially if Denver can get Gobert into foul trouble. If the Nuggets are content to stand around and toss up threes or dribble around the court without shooting or cutting, Utah will let them - and Denver will lose. The Nuggets need to run the Jokic Offense to win this, not the Jameer Nelson Special.

Prediction: The Nuggets haven’t proven they can stop anyone, not a meter maid or students at a school crossing or an armadillo on roller skates. Until they can figure out how to close out a close game with a win and get stops when they have to, it will be hard for them to beat good teams that can keep it close. Or bad teams, for that matter. The Jazz are decidedly not a bad team, and keeping it close is their forte. They haven’t lost a game that was within 7 points in a month, so you have to outrun them to nail down a victory.

Denver has proven it can score on anyone, but until I see those stops come late I won’t count on them. 111-107, Jazz.