The Western Conference race was a rollercoaster for just about every team that made the playoffs, but the Nuggets and Jazz endured more than their share of ups and downs. The Nuggets once seemed like a good bet to land the two-seed and were believed to be the Lakers' prime challenger. Denver was derailed by injuries and head coach George Karl's battle with cancer. A lackluster finish meant Denver had to settle for a tie for the Northwest Division title, which it won over Utah because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Jazz recovered from a 19-17 start to briefly move into the coveted two-seed slot with just over a week to go in the season. However, the Jazz were also bitten by the injury bug, split its last four games and dropped all the way to fifth in the only edition of the conference standings that matters--the last.
The drop on the seeding ladder means not only does Denver and Utah have to face each other, but the survivor is rewarded with a likely second-round matchup against the Lakers. Oh well, you're going to have to face the Lakers eventually anyway, right? Denver won three of their four regular-season games against the Jazz, and Utah's only victory came when the Nuggets' Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony were both sitting out with injuries.
The Jazz are going to be shorthanded in the series after Andrei Kirilenko re-injured his strained left calf in a workout on Thursday. He's out for about two weeks, so he could return if the series goes long. Also, Carlos Boozer will be playing with a strained oblique. This is a slow-healing injury more common to baseball players and it's uncertain what effect it's going to have on Boozer's game. For Denver, Kenyon Martin is back on the court after missing 18 games with a knee injury, but he played limited minutes in the Nuggets' last three games and it remains to be seen just how effective he's going to be.
WHEN THE NUGGETS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 92.9 (5th NBA)
Denver's Offensive Rating: 113.7 (5th)
Utah's Defensive Rating: 108.0 (11th)
Aesthetically, this should be a fun series to watch, with scores over 100 points and possession counts pushing into the upper 90s. Utah posted its best Defensive Rating in a while this season, though its league standing in that category was a repeat of 2008-09. However, Anthony and Billups averaged a combined 60 points in the two games each played against the Jazz and Utah will have to combat 'Melo without the services of their best defensive player. According to 82games.com, Utah was 5.4 points worse per 100 possessions without Kirilenko on the floor. That could mean Utah has to outscore the Nuggets in this series, and that won't be easy.
The Nuggets are a bad matchup for Utah simply because, like last season, they are the best team in the league at getting to the line. Anthony (5th) and Billups (9th) both ranked in the top 10 league-wide in free throws made. Meanwhile, Utah was the NBA's most foul-prone team for the fifth time in the last six years. Denver's league-leading FT/FGA figure was .290. Against Utah, that number was .329 and the Nuggets averaged 34 free-throw attempts per game.
The head-to-head duel between Billups and Utah's Deron Williams is a little bit overhyped in that Billups will spend little time guarding Williams. However, Williams will be primarily responsible for guarding Billups and he's got to keep him under control without getting into foul trouble. With Kirilenko out, the duty of guarding Anthony will be split among rookie Wes Matthews and unheralded C.J. Miles, who are both good athletes but are undersized in terms of defending 'Melo. With Martin ailing, the Jazz may roll Boozer (who is listed as questionable for Game One, but says he's going to play) and Paul Millsap to help force Anthony to give up the ball. But you know 'Melo is going to get plenty of shots. It'll be key for Denver that a lot of those shots are taken when attacking the basket.
Despite all the fouling, the Jazz are sound defensively because they force turnovers--a trickier proposition without Kirilenko--and seal off the defensive glass. Denver isn't a great offensive rebounding team, but they do a good job of protecting the ball, primarily because of Billups, who routinely posts one of the lowest turnover rates in the league among starting point guards. This season, only Chicago's Derrick Rose did better among regular lead guards.
WHEN THE JAZZ HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.5 (11th NBA)
Utah's Offensive Rating: 113.0 (7th)
Denver's Defensive Rating: 110.0 (16th)
Jerry Sloan's timeworn system posted a 1.3-point improvement in Offensive Rating over last season on the strength of the usual flurry of backcuts and ball movement. And, of course, Deron Williams. The Jazz were in the top five in both eFG% and FT/FGA (expect a lot of fouls in this series) and, as per usual, ranked in the bottom 10 among in turning the ball over. This season, Utah took it to more of an extreme by ranking 27th in turnover percentage. That's another reason Denver is a tough matchup for the Jazz because the Nuggets' defense posted the NBA's 9th-best turnover rate. Utah can hurt Denver on the offensive glass. Though the Jazz slipped to 13th in offensive rebound percentage this season (Sloan's teams usually crack the top five in this area), just three teams were worse on the defensive glass than Denver in the regular season and its top defensive rebounder, Martin, is hobbled. Second-chance points will be key for Utah's chances in this series.
As mentioned, Billups won't be the primary defender on Williams. That task falls to defensive specialist Arron Afflalo. Williams averaged 22 points and 10 assists in the four regular-season meetings, but he's going to have to up those figures to more like 28 and 12 in the playoffs considering Utah's likely problems on the defensive end. Even when healthy, Boozer has a tough time getting shots against Denver and if Martin's injury means more minutes for Chris Andersen, that could be the case in this series as well. The Boozer-Martin matchup will be a bellwether pairing in the series and the winner may come down to health.
Things really turned sour for Utah in the last week of the season, with the drop in seed, the home loss to the Suns to end the regular season, Boozer's injury and Kirilenko's re-injury. However, the Jazz was one of league's strongest teams over the last half of the season and enter the playoffs with the best point differential in the Western Conference. Obviously, Utah will have to win at least one on the road to advance, but the Jazz were over .500 away from home this season and improved in that regard as the season progressed. The series may come down to who can best overcome injury problems, but Karl's absence means that the coaching matchup is Sloan versus Adrian Dantley, rather than Sloan versus George Karl. That may turn out to be the difference in what should be a very tight series.
Utah in 7.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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