As a good Denver Nuggets fan I am sure you thoroughly dislike the Utah Jazz. It is not difficult to come up with a reason or four. The silly nickname, the we have nothing else to cheer for fans who shriek to the heavens over any call that goes against their team regardless of how correct the call was, the fact they think they have better skiing there than in Colorado and worst of all, the years of putting up with a dominant Jazz team that pounded the Nuggets for years thanks to Stockton and Malone.
Things have changed in the Era of Melo. Denver has been able to get the better of the Jazz more often than not since Carmelo Anthony rode into town on a light blue steed. This is the seventh straight season Denver has made the playoffs and they have now won three of the last five division championships (guess who won the other two). While they have battled each other for division titles and playoff positioning, these two Stalwarts of the Mountain Time Zone rarely face off in the postseason. They have only faced off in the playoffs one other time in the past 25 seasons. In 1994 the Jazz defeated the upstart Nuggets, fresh off their upset of the top seeded Seattle Supersonics, four games to three.
After a 16 year hiatus it is time to shift this cantankerous regular season rivalry into a full blown throwing things around the house and making the neighbors wonder if they should call 911 playoff conflagration.
These two teams are very evenly matched. “How evenly matched are they?” you ask. They have finished each of the previous two seasons with identical records with the Nuggets earning the tie breaker both times. The Jazz have been better over the second half of the season, but thanks to a 3-1 series win in the regular season Denver has the advantage of up to four games on their home court. Both teams are dealing with injuries with Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer nicked up for the Jazz and Kenyon Martin still recovering from patella tendinitis. All three are currently expected to play in game one, but if any one of the three is unable to perform up to the standard they have set for themselves it will be difficult to overcome.
At this point I think it is safe to expect both teams to have all of their players available as we enter the series. The fact that back to back games are now a thing of the past will help Kirilenko, Boozer and Martin continue to recover and get stronger as the series wears on.
Neither team has been particularly good defensively although neither is as bad as Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns made them look in their respective season ending blowouts. I think there is evidence that neither coach feels particularly comfortable with where his team is defensively as can be evidenced by the Nuggets desperate attempt to switch screens against the Suns and the Jazz playing a leaky zone.
I think we can expect to see the Nuggets play the Jazz as straight up as possible. The Jazz have the reputation of being a pick and roll team, but they are a team that sets a bevy of picks on every possession and force you to pay close attention to your man and worry about who might be coming free for an open shot. Denver has better this season helping on screens and cuts away from the ball, than figuring out how to stop the pick and roll. It will be interesting to see if the Jazz play more pick and roll to exploit Denver’s weakness or if they stick to their regular game plan and work to out execute Denver. I would expect the Nuggets to attempt to defend the pick and roll the same way they did against San Antonio and Memphis towards the end of the regular season. Denver did not switch ball screens much against Utah this season and seeing as how that is such a passive strategy I do not expect to see them begin to do so now.
However, the Jazz get most of their shots off of cuts either to the lane or directly at the rim. Williams does not shoot very often driving off a ball screen. If he cannot get the ball to the roll man, he will look to kick out if the defense is collapsing, or simply pass in order to set himself up to run off a screen where he likes to catch and shoot midrange jumpers.
From a personnel standpoint you can expect to see Arron Afflalo start out covering Deron Williams with Chauncey covering C.J. Miles. Afflalo will have to fight over the screens set by the large frontcourt players the Jazz can throw at you. Nene will start out on Boozer leaving Kenyon to cover the much larger Mehmet Okur.
Utah has had success running on Denver and it will be important for the Nuggets to limit easy baskets in transition. You can expect the Jazz to be aggressive in transition, they know Denver struggles in that area and will attempt to take advantage of it. They will not be afraid of a fast paced game.
On the other end of the floor Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo one on one. Andrei is not the defender he once was and you can expect to see him sag off of Melo to defend against the drive and hope his length will allow him to challenge a jump shot. With AK-47 laying off the Jazz will probably not pre-rotate any help to Melo’s side of the floor and there have been times where I was very surprised to see how little concern the Jazz have shown for Melo’s ability to get to the rim. When Kirilenko is not in the game you can expect to see Utah double Melo mixing their looks up between immediate hard doubles and waiting until he puts the ball on the floor before sending the extra defender.
You can score on the Utah Jazz. If you are patient, move without the ball and share you can get almost any shot you want. It was impressive to watch Phoenix pass the ball five, six or seven times in order to get the defense moving and earn wide open looks, one after the other. It will be crucial for Denver to play with purpose. Utah will try to close off the lane and get Denver to shoot jumpers. If the Nuggets fall into that trap, which they have on a regular basis as of late, it will make for a frustrating series. On the other hand if the Nuggets work the ball around and cut the Jazz will struggle to stop them.
Little needs to be said about the coaching matchup as Jerry Sloan has won more Western Conference Championships than Adrian Dantley has coached playoff games. At this point I trust Dantely has committed to Ty Lawson as the backup point guard and will relegate Anthony Carter to the cushy folding chairs. It will be very interesting to see if either coach will be able to dictate lineups to the other. Dantley loves going small, but asking Carmelo to cover Carlos Boozer or even Paul Milsap is a disaster waiting to happen. Still, Boozer or Milsap would have an even more difficult time with Melo. If the size of the Jazz can relegate the Nuggets’ small lineups to a regular season memory it will be significant. On the other hand should Denver be able to force the issue with a smaller lineup it will be a boon for the Nuggets as they absolutely hold an edge over the Jazz in both quality and quantity of guards and swingmen.
Finally we can move on to the individual matchups where we start off with the Jazz big men. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur are a difficult matchup for many teams. Okur is the larger man, but has the tremendous outside game that is vexing for opposing bigs who do not want to venture out 24 feet from the rim. However, if you put a smaller defender, such as Kenyon Martin, on Okur he can use his size advantage of score on the block. If Okur can have success against Kenyon on the block Denver will have to start doubling him and that will open up the floor for the cutters to slice and dice the defense for easy baskets.
I like the matchup between Nene and Boozer for Denver. Nene has the size, strength and quickness to contain Boozer. Plus I think Nene can drive by Boozer at will if he faces him up, or he can spin around him with his back to the basket. Chris “Birdman” Andersen is not a great fit to cover either one as he prefers to be in the paint than on the perimeter guarding Okur and Boozer is crafty enough not to let Birdman block his shot when he gets good position. The entire Jazz squad does a pretty solid job of throwing a ball fake or pump fake at their defender so Andersen will have to be ready for that.
As mentioned above, Utah will attempt to have Kirilenko cover Carmelo. I do not think it will end well for Kirilenko who is no longer quick enough to stay in front of Anthony, but seems to lack the explosiveness he used to have as a shot blocker.
J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson bring speed and quickness the Jazz cannot match. Both have had big games scoring and distributing this season against Utah. While I think Carmelo Anthony will be the best player in the series, I think Denver’s biggest advantage is the firepower they have on the bench in J.R. and Lawson. Still, the pressure remains on J.R. to not just shoot, but use his penetration and passing abilities to get his teammates easy looks at the rim. He has been particularly effective running pick and roll against Utah and dropping his smooth bounce pass to the rolling big.
Lawson had perhaps his two best games against the Jazz this season and I expect him to continue to fluster Utah’s guards with his speed and quickness. Ronnie Price is a nice player, but should not be much of a match for Lawson when Ty has the ball.
Of course Chauncey will be a big factor in the series. The less the Nuggets can have him stuck guarding Williams the better, but he will be up to the task when necessary. Hopefully Billups can curtail his Mr. Big Shot tendencies and demand an unselfish effort on offense.
Ultimately, I think there was a reason why Denver won the season series from Utah this season. I think they are the better team. However, that margin is razor thin. The Nuggets will certainly miss George Karl, but hopefully now that he is done with his treatment he can provide a little boost of moral. Still, I am a little disappointed Denver has been more distracted by the coaching situation than motivated by it. Even so, I think home court will loom large in this series although both teams are capable of stealing a game on the other’s floor.
In the end the Nuggets’ talent, athleticism and desire to push further into the postseason than they did last season will carry the day and Denver dispatches the Jazz in seven hard fought and entertaining games. And at the end, you will so despise the Jazz you will want to punch Branford Marsalis in the face.