With the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets losses and the Oklahoma City Thunder victory last night the Nuggets playoff seeding has been set. They will be the three seed in the Western Conference for the 2020 NBA playoffs. Their opponent has also been determined, the sixth seeded Utah Jazz. This will not be the first time these division rivals have met in the playoffs and the history between the two teams is notable.
First and foremost, they are truly division rivals. In fact, up until recent years, Utah is likely the first name to roll off a Nuggets fan’s tongue when they consider rivals. They are Denver’s closest opponent in terms of geographical proximity which has kept the two teams in the same division throughout their NBA history despite realignment in 2004. Since Denver moved from the ABA to the NBA, Utah has been one of their closest foes, and that has led to many heated regular season contests as well as a handful of playoff meetings.
The two teams have in fact met four times in the postseason with two being fiercely competitive and two not as much. Sadly for Nuggets fans, Denver is just 1-3 in those affairs. The very first time the teams met was in the first round in 1984. The seventh seeded Nuggets were led by the trio of Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe and Dan Issel while the second seeded Jazz had a well rounded roster that was captained by scoring dynamo Adrian Dantley. After losing game one in Salt Lake, Denver would actually jump on Utah early in game 2 and wind up blowing out the Jazz on their homecourt behind 30+ point performances from each of their “big three.” They followed it up with a close win back in the friendly confines of McNichols Arena and appeared to be poised for the upset (remember, first round series were best of five, not seven, in those days). Unfortunately Dantley played his best game of the series in game four, putting the Nuggets away late on their home floor and forcing a deciding game five back in Utah. The Nuggets gave up 41 points in the first quarter of game five before mounting a comeback in the second half but didn’t have the energy to keep it up in the fourth quarter. Utah wound up winning by sixteen and Dantley led the franchise to their first playoff series victory.
It would not take long for the Nuggets to get revenge. They pulled off one of the biggest and most impactful trades in their history over the summer when they sent Vandeweghe to the Portland Trail Blazers and received, among other pieces, Fat Lever and Calvin Natt in return. After putting up a record of 52-30 in the regular season Denver was crowned the Midwest Division champions and ended up as the second seed in the West. After a fierce five game series that was book ended by Nuggets blowouts against the San Antonio Spurs, Denver took on sixth seeded Utah in the Western Conference semis. The Jazz never stood a chance. English was unstoppable, Natt filled the role of second scoring threat with Issel fading and up until he got hurt in the waning minutes of game 3 Lever averaged a triple double. The Nuggets completed a gentlemen’s sweep of Utah, summarily dispatching them in five games.
It would be nearly a decade before the two teams met in the postseason again. The 1994 playoff run by Denver is one of the most fondly remembered and iconic moments of franchise history. The Nuggets shocked the world by becoming the very first eight seed ever to knock off a one seed in the first round. What fewer remember is that the Nuggets very nearly made history again when they had the chance to become the first team to win a series after falling down three games to none. That happened in the Western Conference semis when Denver met the John Stockton/Karl Malone/Jeff Hornacek Jazz. Denver was the upstart young team with a bright future ahead of them. They were led by sharp shooting guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, defensive force Dikembe Mutombo and dynamic forward Laphonso Ellis. Though the team was young, they were deep and talented. The Jazz though were on their way to becoming an NBA powerhouse behind Malone and Stockton.
The Nuggets fell behind early in game 1, fell apart late in game 2 and suffered a heartbreaking, buzzer beating Hornacek basket in overtime on their home floor in game 3. It had all the makings of a short series as the Nuggets simply had no answer for Malone... and then something magical happened. Denver finally got the clamps on The Mailman in game 4 and won a grind it out thriller despite a tough shooting night from Abdul-Rauf. They went on to shock Utah on their home floor in game 5 in what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest basketball games ever played. It took two overtimes, Malone and Ellis both fouled out, but Denver was able to rally behind Abdul-Rauf and the terrific bench duo of Brian Williams (aka Bison Dele) and Robert Pack to get the victory. The Nuggets ran away with game 6 in the fourth quarter and set up the all deciding game 7. Unfortunately, whether it was running out of gas or simply being outmatched, Denver couldn’t shock the world twice. Ellis had his worst game of the Playoffs, Malone dominated and a run in the third quarter by the Jazz put the nail in the coffin and ended one of, if not, the most memorable playoff runs in Nuggets history.
Once again, it would be awhile until Denver would meet their division foe in the postseason, sixteen years to be precise. The 2009-2010 Nuggets were one of the best teams in the NBA. They were coming off of a Western Conference Finals run in ‘09 and had once again been locked in the two seed for most of the season. Unfortunately, in true NuggLife fashion, coach George Karl was diagnosed with throat cancer in February and the Nuggets tumbled to the four seed by the time the playoffs started. Karl attempted to make a return to the bench but the tax the cancer and subsequent treatments put on his body made it impossible. Despite (ironically) Adrian Dantley bumbling his way through coaching Denver, they still had the star duo of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups and there was little worry about beating the fifth seeded Jazz in the first round. That turned out to be foolish confidence.
The Jazz were led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer when those two guys were at the height of their careers. Though they were without the criminally underrated Andrei Kirilenko, they still had a strong bench that included a young Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. The series started off well enough with the Nuggets putting away the Jazz in the fourth quarter of game 1 behind a huge game from Melo and a classic J.R. Smith scoring outburst, but it quickly went astray. Melo and Chauncey (Melo in particular) did everything they could but got almost no help from anyone on the roster in the subsequent games. Meanwhile Williams was unstoppable, routinely racking up monster double doubles. The Nuggets lost three straight and found themselves returning to the Pepsi Center down three games to one. Their bench and role players finally stepped up in game 5 in what was the most complete game by the Nuggets in the series to force a game six back in Utah but unfortunately they had no answer for Boozer, who notched a 20/20 game. Had it not been for Joey Graham (you read that right) the game would have been an early blowout. Ultimately Utah used a run behind Millsap and Wesley Matthews in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.
That was the last time these two teams played each other in the postseason. That series was also probably the most impactful for Denver of any of the four they played against Utah. Disappointed with yet another first round exit, particularly one where they were favored, Melo forced his way out of Denver the next season and altered the course of franchise history. While there has been no post season matchups in the decade since, there has been plenty of fodder between the two teams. Utah fans like to point out Denver gifted them their two stars, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, in draft day trades even though the Nuggets had no intention of drafting either player. The teams still play four games a season against one another and account for three of the past four division championships.
The fact remains that Utah has got the better of Denver three out of four times in the post season. It’s high time for that to change. After SLC Dunk called out the Nuggets for intentionally dropping a game last season which meant the Jazz had to play the Houston Rockets in the first round, Utah appeared to intentionally drop games in the bubble this season to set up a matchup with the Nuggets. Likewise, Denver rested starters late in three of the seven seeding games they played in what appears to also be attempt to set up this matchup. It seems that both of these teams are going to get what they wanted...but only Denver should want it. The Nuggets swept the regular season series with the Jazz, Gobert has been wholly ineffective in even slowing down Nikola Jokic (Joker even dropped a 30/20/10 game on him) and one of the Utah thorns in Denver’s side, Bojan Bogdanovic, will not be available. There’s also the question of who will stop Michael Porter Jr on Utah’s side. If the game last week was any indication, Royce O’neale and Joe Ingles ain’t it. It’s high time for some payback in my estimation. Nuggets in 5.