SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz got the matchup they appeared to have wanted. On Monday, the NBA playoffs begin with the Jazz and Denver Nuggets meeting for Game 1.
There are reasons it looked like the Jazz wanted the Nuggets: their defense is susceptible to the pick and roll, they have a more traditional center for Rudy Gobert to guard, and they aren't the Houston Rockets.
But there's also a reason why the Nuggets were in contention for the No. 2 seed in the West until the very end of the season: Denver is really good. Here's some good news and some bad news about what playing the Nuggets in the playoffs means for the Jazz.
Good news: When Gobert and Jokic have shared the court, the Jazz have won
Nikola Jokic has averaged 29.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the three games against the Jazz this season (all Denver wins). The man, in short, is a problem.
Yet, despite those gaudy numbers, the Nuggets have actually been outscored by the Jazz over the course of three games when Jokic is on the court with Gobert. It’s not a huge advantage — just 8 points — but that’s still relevant. This was most apparent during the first half of Denver’s win over Utah in the bubble last weekend when Jokic had just two points at halftime and the Jazz led by 14.
Don’t be surprised if the Jazz simply match Jokic’s minutes with Gobert’s over the course of the series. The Nuggets' offensive rating, according to tracking data from NBA.com, is 106.6 this season on possessions when Gobert guards Jokic — 6 points lower than their season average.
Bad news: Jokic might just flip a switch when he needs to
Most of Jokic’s damage against Utah has come after halftime. For example, in Denver’s double-overtime win over the Jazz last week, Jokic had 28 points after halftime as he led the Nuggets' comeback. He also led a late comeback in Salt Lake City in February.
Jokic was 11 for 17 with the score within 5 points in the last five minutes against Utah this season.
“I think he's a very good player and he plays to win,” Gobert said. “When his team needs him to step up at the end of games, he usually does. So it's gonna be a challenge for all of us”
Good news: The Jazz’s starting lineup is really good
Utah’s bench has struggled this season — that was the case before Bojan Bogdanovic went out, and even more so with him gone. Good thing the Jazz’s current starting five of Gobert, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles have been outstanding this season. That lineup has outscored opponents by 19.2 points per 100 possessions, and those five players are expecting to get a lot of run together during the playoffs.
Bad news: That starting 5 still struggled against Denver
While the current starting five jumped out to a 15-7 lead against the Nuggets last Saturday, they ended up being outscored by 10 after Denver mounted the furious comeback.
Good news: The Nuggets' defense isn't good right now
Denver’s defense in the bubble has been pretty awful — and that's putting it lightly. The Nuggets have a restart-worst 121.7 defensive rating and have allowed opponents to shoot an eyebrow-raising 44.8% from 3-point land, according to NBA.com.
"It's almost comical at this point," Denver head coach Mike Malone said of his team’s 3-point defense.
That should be music to the Jazz’s ears. Utah is the second-best 3-point shooting team in the league and the best catch-and-shoot 3-point shooting team. After a rough shooting start to the bubble experience, they have hit at least 40% from deep in four of their last five games while making a concerted effort to shoot more triples.
Bad news: The Jazz have hit shots against Denver — and still lost
One of the teams that lit up the Nuggets from deep was the Jazz. Utah went 22 of 55 (40%) from 3-point range (both franchise records) when the teams played in the bubble. And yet, Utah still couldn’t get the victory.
In fact, the Jazz have been pretty good from deep in all three games against the Nuggets this season. In January, they went 17-of-37 (46%) from three, and in February they were 14-of-39 (36%). They’ve proven they're able to get the shots they want, and even make them against Denver. But that has yet to end in a win.
Good news: The Nuggets might be shorthanded
The status of regular Denver starters Gary Harris and Will Barton is still unknown. Harris has a hip strain, while Barton has a right knee injury that didn’t respond well to playing a scrimmage in July; neither has played in a seeding game.
“If and when they are cleared to play, we’ll slowly work them back in. But, obviously, we are very deep into this Orlando bubble,” Malone said.
Bad news: That didn’t help the Jazz in February
In February, the Nuggets were without Barton, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant, and Michael Porter Jr. when they played Utah in Salt Lake City. Denver still found a way to win.
Good news: Craig is not a shooter
Jokic is at his best when he's surrounded by shooters — there's a reason he averaged nearly 10 assists against the Jazz. But Torrey Craig, who has jumped into the starting lineup due to injuries, is not that. Craig has hit on just 32% of his 3-pointers this season. The Jazz may just end up daring him to shoot Denver to victories in order to focus on the Nuggets' more lethal scorers.
Bad news: Craig is pretty good at guarding Mitchell
In the first matchup of the season against the Nuggets, Donovan Mitchell was 1 for 12 for just 4 points — easily his worst performance of the season. And Mitchell, in general, has struggled against Denver. He was 8 for 24 in the loss in February and was mostly kept in check by the Nuggets last weekend before erupting at the end of the fourth quarter. Craig might be the biggest reason for those struggles. Mitchell has shot just 25% when being guarded by Craig this season.
During the first overtime last week, Mitchell scored 8 points in the final 2 minutes to nearly win the game — Craig wasn’t on the court.
NBA playoffs: Jazz vs. Nuggets, 1st round
- Game 1: Monday, Aug. 17, 11:30 a.m. MDT, ESPN
- Game 2: Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2 p.m. MDT, TNT
- Game 3: Friday, Aug. 21, 2 p.m. MDT, TNT
- Game 4: Sunday, Aug. 23, 7 p.m., MDT, TNT
- *Game 5: Tuesday, Aug. 25, TBD
- *Game 6: Thursday, Aug. 27, TBD
- *Game 7: Saturday, Aug. 29, TBD
All games will be played in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
All games will be played in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.