There is no more wall to back up against, no more fence to be pressed on. The Denver Nuggets are out of chances, excuses and patience as they are one game from elimination to their division rivals the Utah Jazz. Star Nikola Jokic has been okay for a two of the games and abysmal for the other two. Jamal Murray has had two amazing duels with Donovan Mitchell, who is trying to write his way into the Hall of Fame with one series it feels like, and then two other no-shows. Michael Porter Jr. has found out what it’s like to be game-planned for by NBA coaches for the very first time and his defense has been found desperately wanting while his offense is mostly MIA.
Denver trails the Jazz 3-1 and it’s gut check time for the Mile High crew. It’s not about fancy jerseys or shirtless golf - this is the real business of being a contender or a pretender, and right now the Nuggets are making last year’s run look like the most foolish of fool’s gold. Michael Malone has been outcoached and outfoxed by Quin Snyder, and there have been precious few bright spots for the Nuggets so far as the Jazz have gotten everything they’ve wanted whenever they asked for it. Utah has outshot, outhustled, outworked and outperformed the Nuggets, and they know it. They’ve earned the swagger that comes with that.
But narrative is not destined to be outcome. The Nuggets have a chance to rewrite their future and pick up their pride off the hardwood where they dropped it in Games 2 and 3. They have the opportunity to live to fight another day, or to go home in ignominious fashion. The future is now.
Who: Denver Nuggets (1-3) vs Utah Jazz (3-1)
When: 4:30 PM MDT
How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy..unless its the romanticized 18th-century type. TNT, League Pass for non-Denver market viewers. Sneak into the bubble with an Adam Silver mask. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio.
300 Spartans vs. the Persian army
Three Things to Watch
Can Murray do it again? Jokic hasn’t found his normal level in any of the games so far, but Murray came on strong in Game 1 to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and fell just short in his duel with Donovan Mitchell despite a 50-point effort for the budding Canadian star. Denver will need him to bring his A game again, and inconsistency has been Murray’s bugaboo for his entire career.
The talent is there to be both a shooter and a scorer, but he scored just 26 combined points in the other two blowouts. Jokic has been a wrecking ball before, but regardless of whether or not he finds it this game Jamal has to keep pace with Utah’s scorers. He is Denver’s best weapon from deep when he’s on and without another top performance Denver’s playoff hopes likely die here.
Do the Nuggets have a third scorer? Denver barely won Game 1 behind 65 from Jokic and Murray. They barely lost Game 4 behind 79 from Denver’s dynamic duo. But those two are on the court together much of the time - can Denver get another scoring effort from anyone else to tip the scales? Coach Michael Malone hasn’t deployed Michael Porter Jr with either the starters or the bench as a scorer taking volume shots, far more worried that Utah is demolishing him at the point of attack every time he’s on the court.
But he is by far Denver’s most gifted remaining scorer, and if you won’t enable his scoring then why play him? Monte Morris could get hot, or Jerami Grant could get his 3-point stroke working, but whomever it is Denver likely needs a third real scoring threat in this game. Getting a few buckets from everyone might work, but expect this game to be close.
Will Utah ever miss again? Shooting performances like the one Utah has put on in this series are usually reserved for the luminaries, the Steph-Curry-led squads that turn the staid rules of basketball into an origami pretzel. It’s possible Donovan Mitchell is turning into one of those Steph Curry or Damian Lillard types who can stay hot the whole game and pipe in shots from every spot on the court, despite that not being his regular season mode. Or it’s possible the Nuggets woeful ineptitude on defense is making the Jazz look like the championship Golden State Warriors.
Whichever it is, it has to stop for Denver to catch a break and extend the series. Mitchell went 1-for-12 against the Nuggets in January, then 8-for-24 a week later. Apparently those are all the misses he has planned against Denver for the rest of his career, but the Nuggets will have to run Utah off the 3 point line, make the pick and roll something less than an automatic bucket (and foul, apparently) and try not to lose the free throw battle by 20.
Bonus thought: can someone put out an APB for All-NBA player Nikola Jokic? You know, the man who captained Denver’s Magnificent Seven win against the Jazz earlier this year and looked like a top-8 player in the Association? The Nuggets could really use that guy. There is no tomorrow for this season if they don’t win today.
Prediction: The Nuggets find a way to steal this one, 125-117 - but they’re gonna make us sweat for it all game.