The Denver Nuggets face a very tall task. They must win a game in Utah if they are going to keep their season alive. Before the series began, roughly a lifetime ago, I predicted the Nuggets would win in seven games with both teams winning one game on the road. Of course, that was before the injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur after which I proclaimed Denver would win in five games. In addition to that prediction I also claimed the Jazz would finish the Nuggets off in game five when Denver dropped the previous three games, only to reverse course again prior to tipoff when I claimed the Nuggets would win and force a game six.
File all of that under the if you make enough predictions, one is bound to be right folder.
With all my dirty laundry now exposed, I must say I expect the Jazz to win game six. They have been dominant at home against Denver. The Nuggets really had no shot at winning games three and four, and even in their game five win I did not find Denver’s performance overly impressive. Now add in the loss of Nene for at least game six and Denver certainly has the odds stacked against them.
One thing I do know is all of the talk about Denver being better without Nene is utterly ridiculous. Nene played well in the first two games, and even in games three and four he was able to get to the line, for some reason he was incapable of converting on his many opportunities at a respectable rate, but he still was effective enough to average ten free throws a game. The fact is Denver has struggled with foul trouble when all of their bigs have been available. Things will only be worse with Nene out.
Johan Petro has exceed expectations all season, albeit very low expectations. Petro will have to not only play well, but stay out of foul trouble in game six. Utah is not a team that plays small. Outside of garbage time the Jazz have played a total of about three minutes all series without two big men on the floor. For the most part between Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Kyrylo Fesenko two of the three are always on the floor. Asking Carmelo Anthony to guard one of those three in the post will almost assuredly result in Melo committing fouls and Denver needs Melo to be on the floor for at least 42 minutes.
I suspect Kenyon will start out covering Fesenko in order to avoid any early foul trouble from covering Boozer. That will put the onus on Petro to not only keep Boozer from going off, but do so without committing fouls. I am dubious of him being able to accomplish either of those two tasks.
At this point Denver is clearly the underdog. I would recommend they go for broke, set Kenyon on Boozer and hope for the best. If they have to go small, they would be better off with inserting Joey Graham to defend Millsap, there is no way they can go small and expect anyone other than Kenyon, Birdman or Petro to handle Boozer. Melo cannot cover Millsap without fouling and Melo does not need any help in picking up fouls. There is the possibility of doubling to assist Carmelo in defending Millsap, but Denver has struggled to handle Utah when they play them straight up. I shudder to think what Utah might do to them should Denver voluntarily get out of position. Even so, Denver might have no choice other than use Carmelo at the four. The good news is Millsap cannot handle Melo either, however, Millsap is more adept at avoiding foul trouble than Melo has been, though Millsap did foul out in game four.
The bottom line is with the current state of Kenyon and Birdman’s health I do not think you can get more than 65 minutes of floor time between the two of them. That leaves roughly 30 minutes that will need to be picked up by Petro and others. Yes, you can expect a Malik Allen sighting. This is going to be a serious problem for Denver and it increases the degree of difficulty for a win in game six substantially.
Obviously, Denver must have another strong performance from Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith on offense. Utah is going to put points on the board and Denver will have to match. I am encouraged by the way J.R. Smith played on Wednesday. If he continues to play his new brand of unselfish ball where he drives to set up teammates and picks his spots from behind the arc, he can be a game changer. Ty Lawson is going to have to create easy opportunities in transition and generally create havoc in the half court.
As far as intangibles, Deron Williams has been consistently amazing and he has yet to have a poor shooting night. Maybe he is due for one. He cannot keep shooting over 50% from the field and from behind the arc all series can he? Utah will be highly motivated to close out the Nuggets and you kind of got the sense they did not feel the urgency to win game five that they will for game six. Also, after the Nuggets enjoyed a significant advantage at the free throw line we can expect a backlash in that area as well as the natural swing in that area that will come about by switching the venue to Salt Lake City. Also, the Jazz had a very poor shooting night from Kyle Korver. The chances of that happening again are remote. The Jazz will undoubtedly perform better shooting off of screens.
The only intangible I can reach for from the Nuggets’ point of view is Melo has really been working hard to prove he is a star player and will not get bumped from the first round again, although his effort to carry Denver in game four came up a bit short. Still, if he plays like he did in game four and gets some help from his talented supporting cast, Denver can win.
That is right, I said Denver can win, I just do not find a victory to be very likely. The lack of big man depth is going to cause a myriad of issues. If the Nuggets find themselves behind by double digits in the second or third quarter, as has been their wont in the other two games in Utah, will they possess the determination and heart to fight back, or will they fold up the tent and write the season off as a nightmare that can only end by starting a new day?
Every game is an opportunity to prove yourself and when the buzzer sounds on game six, we will know exactly what this Nuggets team is made of.