Here we are again, with the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz facing off in the Battle of Players Picked In Denver’s Draft Slot. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are both doing well in Utah (though Mitchell has not taken the step forward many were expecting in his sophomore campaign) and the Jazz have won six of their last seven games to climb back into the Western Conference playoff picture after a slow start. The Nuggets have fought off some of the most horrible injury luck in the Association to stand near the top of the conference - but that grip on home court is nowhere near secure in the stacked West either.
Both teams need this game for playoff positioning and tie-breaker scenarios, which is funny to think about half-way through the season but also absolutely true. The Nuggets are usually hideous in Utah, though, and will have to find a way to solve their Salt Lake riddle or leave with a loss.
Who: Denver Nuggets (31-14) vs Utah Jazz (26-22)
When: 8:30ish PM MDT
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City UT
How to watch: ESPN
How to Listen: Altitude Radio 92.5 FM
Rival Blog: SLC Dunk
Thabo Sefalosha - out (hamstring), Raul Neto - out (groin), Dante Exum - out (ankle), Tony Bradley - out (knee surgery recovery), Isaiah Thomas - out (hip), Michael Porter Jr. - out (back), Jarred Vanderbilt - QUESTIONABLE AAAAAAHHHH (foot), Gary Harris and Will Barton on 20 minutes injury restriction (someone tell Malone)
Three things to watch
How do the Jazz handle Jokic-ball? The Nuggets obliterated Utah down the stretch of their first meeting in early November, but the Jazz were on a back-to-back and definitely not playing their best basketball of the season. The Nuggets will be working Gary Harris back in along with the ever-improving Will Barton, but both teams are beat up a bit at this point in the season. Rudy Gobert has improved his perimeter defense and is more comfortable coming out of the paint now, but will Denver use that and bait him into leaving the rim to defend Jokic?
It’s a fascinating match-up of styles and tendencies and two very different kinds of successful basketball. I’d be interested to see what would happen if the two teams switched coaches, honestly - Utah’s defensive mentality fits Michael Malone’s basketball heart to a tee, and Quin Snyder would get to torment Trey Lyles with more of the practices Lyles has said he disliked. On second thought, maybe both coaches are better off where they are: taking a disciplined approach to their squads and utilizing the pieces they have.
Donovan Mitchell vs. Anyone, but really Jamal Murray. Look, the Donovan Mitchell trade will always be a thing for these two fan bases for as long as Mitchell is good. The Nuggets had the chance to draft Mitchell but instead traded away the pick that became Mitchell for Trey Lyles and the pick used on Tyler Lydon. Lydon’s option for next year was not picked up and Lyles has had trouble with consistency and his shot this year in contrast to last year, making his long-term future in Denver up for debate.
But the reason Denver was not rumored to seriously consider Mitchell in that slot is because of the Blue Arrow, Jamal Murray. Denver wasn’t looking to add another guard to Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton, and Murray’s continued offensive development this year has proven why that is. Mitchell has won an NBA Player of the Week award already this month, and Murray has gone off for quarters, halves and entire games of straight fire. Both young players could use that consistency Lyles is looking for, actually, but I would expect these two guards to be dueling for years to come and just like the center matchup should always bring that fire.
Bench output. Denver’s bench is run by Monte Morris, one of the most efficient point guards in the league despite his relative inexperience. The Jazz won’t have Neto but will have Rubio, though he too is just returning from injury and may still be on a minutes restriction. It would be great if Denver’s bench would be able to get some scoring in while Gobert is on the bench and the paint is more open, but with Harris and Barton both working back into court shape and the starting lineup for Denver being a mutable thing, the team that gets a plus effort from its bench could gain a deciding edge.
Prediction: Wins in Utah are not easy to come by for Denver, but let’s assume they can shake that trend. The team is getting healthy and understand how they need to play, even against Gobert and Mitchell and noted Nugget killer Joe Ingles. 107-98, Denver.
Also, the Nuggets get Chauncey Billups on the microphone for this matchup. That can only bring good luck, right?