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Preview: Nuggets host Utah Jazz in battle of Western Conference powers

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Can the shorthanded Nuggets beat a Jazz squad on short rest?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The last time these two teams played, Donovan Mitchell dropped 46 points on the Nuggets in what was at the time a must-win game for Denver. The Nuggets lost, and while they were fortunate enough for things to break right around them, it was clear last year that the Utah Jazz were the better team than Denver at the time, despite the Nuggets having a better regular season record.

Now, a similar situation appears to be playing out. These two teams have the same record, but the Jazz are 19-4 in their last 23 games. They’ve hit a bit of a rough patch in their last two, but Utah is unquestionably a difficult opponent, possibly the toughest opponent Denver has had this year outside of a full strength Los Angeles Lakers team. Denver generally rises to the occasion against tough teams, but if they don’t bring their A-game tonight, the Jazz will absolutely take advantage. Utah is on a back-to-back, so there may be an opportunity for Denver to run, but a shortened rotation may prevent that.

On TNT tonight, the Nuggets have an opportunity to make a real statement, that even without three rotation players, including two important starters, Denver still has the talent and capability to go up against anybody. Nikola Jokic may have to put this team on his back, but he will need strong performances from those around him, most notably scoring help from Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr. and strong defense from Gary Harris and Torrey Craig. Can Denver rise to the challenge? Let’s find out.


The Basics

Who: Utah Jazz (32-15) at Denver Nuggets (32-15)

When: 8:30PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center. Denver, CO.

How to watch/listen: TNT and KKSE Altitude Radio 92.5FM

Rival Blog: SLC Dunk

Projected Matchups

PG: Gary Harris vs Donovan Mitchell

SG: Will Barton vs Royce O’Neale

SF: Torrey Craig vs Joe Ingles

PF: Jerami Grant vs Bojan Bogdanovic

C: Nikola Jokic vs Rudy Gobert

*Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee remain out for Denver

Three Things to Watch:

Starting lineup woes have begun to impact Denver greatly since Jamal Murray was forced out with an ankle injury. In the seven games Murray has sat, the Nuggets have trailed at the end of the first quarter in five contests. Surrounding Nikola Jokic and Will Barton with competent defenders seems to have worked in some cases, but Denver’s most potent lineups have come when Denver’s second unit begins to filter into the game. In the last seven games, Michael Porter Jr. has the highest single plus-minus on the team at +29, while Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez have the two lowest marks at -39 and -42 respectively. Can Denver get off to a strong start with the above group? Time will tell.

Nikola Jokic vs Rudy Gobert is probably my favorite Jokic matchup to watch on both sides of the ball. Let’s start with the less glamorous end: Gobert does a lot of unique things on offense as a screener, and the way the Jaz run their offense gives him so much space for lobs and put backs. It’s hard to know who to help off of in the starting group. Bogdanovic, Ingles, and O’Neale all shoot better than 40%, so are you leaving Mitchell?

As for the other end though, Jokic is one of the only centers that gives Gobert trouble offensively, and Gobert gives Jokic real trouble defensively. Both are the best in the game at what they do, so it becomes a real style fight. Does Jokic go to the post and try to score around/over Gobert? Does he play at the three point line to lure him away from the rim? It’s a fun battle between two elite centers in two entirely different ways.

Gut check games appear on the schedule occasionally, but this one is really important. It’s unlikely that Denver will win in Milwaukee against the Bucks on Friday evening immediately after playing this one, especially given the time zone change and shorter rest than usual. Still, this is Denver’s first matchup against the Jazz, a potential playoff opponent in the first or second round that could stand in Denver’s way of advancing deep in the playoffs. This is also a division game, and against a team that will finish with close to the same record as Denver, tiebreakers matter, so division games matter. The Nuggets are currently 6-0 against the Northwest, while the Jazz are 4-2. Denver must protect home court if they want to stay ahead of the Jazz going forward. It could be the difference between facing the Mavericks and the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.