By Geoff Lepper, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2010 3:33PM
The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz both gave away chances to clinch the Northwest Division this week before the Nuggets finally backed into the title, courtesy of the Jazz's 100-86 loss to Phoenix on Wednesday. So naturally, they meet again in a first-round playoff series that will ensure somebody finally comes out a winner.
For Denver, finishing as the fourth seed leaves a tough road to follow in order to get back to the Western Conference finals after five years of first-round knockouts. For Utah, it's a letdown to go from being 24 hours away from a No. 2 seed and two rounds of home-court advantage to being No. 5.
This is the first time the Rocky Mountain neighbors are facing off in the playoffs since 1994, when the Jazz beat the Nuggets in a conference semifinal that went all seven games, with a couple of overtime contests and three straight wins by both teams. There's no reason to think this year's edition will be any less exciting.
1. How is Carlos Boozer's strained oblique? And Andrei Kirilenko's strained left calf? Nobody knows for sure. Both are listed as day-to-day, which makes this series tough to predict.
2. Can Carmelo Anthony match his postseason performance of last year? The Nuggets better hope so, or else Denver might have a shorter stay in the playoffs than expected.
3. Will Deron Williams be able to carry Utah past the first round? It might just come down to that, if Boozer and Kirilenko can't give 100 percent.
4. Will Kenyon Martin's aching left knee hold up? Probably. Martin benched himself at halftime of the Nuggets' last regular-season game, which was just his third contest back after a five week layoff. But it was on the second half of a back-to-back, something the Nuggets won't face in the playoffs.
5. Will we see George Karl on the sideline? Definitely not; Karl is expected to miss this series as he recovers from cancer treatments, so interim coach Adrian Dantley will be at the helm.
Utah's offense is pretty much the same precision, motion-based scheme coach Jerry Sloan has been running since taking over the Jazz in 1989. Sloan gives Williams, who finally made his first All-Star team this season, a ton of freedom to run the show, but the beauty of the system is that Williams doesn't have to do everything himself. The Jazz collected assists on 67.8 percent of their baskets this year, far and away the best mark in the league (only three other teams topped 60 percent). Boozer dominates inside, shooting 56.2 percent to get his team-high 19.5 ppg, but Utah also has four regulars at or above 37 percent from the 3-point line -- including center Mehmet Okur, who is a matchup problem for opposing 5s.
Chauncey Billups will probably get first crack at slowing down Williams, although third-year guard Arron Afflalo, impressing defensively in his first year as a starter at the 2, might also get the call at times -- especially considering Utah doesn't have an elite perimeter gunner for Afflalo to chase. The key is going to be whether Denver can keep its focus for all 24 seconds on every possession. Sloan's attack thrives as the shot-clock dwindles; that's when defenses are more likely to make mistakes that the Jazz can exploit for open looks.
Not to make it sound like Karl and Dantley are running a kindergarten instead of an NBA locker room, but it all comes down to sharing for the Nuggets. In the course of 53 victories, Denver averaged 23.3 assists per game; in 29 losses, that number dropped to 16.6. The difference of 6.7 assists in wins vs. losses is the biggest such gap of any playoff team. Billups averaged a career-high 19.5 ppg, but when he has a night like he did Tuesday in Denver's regular-season finale -- zero assists in 33 minutes against Phoenix, which won handily -- things can go bad quickly. Carmelo Anthony jumped 5.4 ppg to 28.2 this season, burnished his credentials as one of the league's most gifted scorers, but it's up to the Nuggets not to forget to feed the ball inside occasionally to Nene, who can work the paint effectively but is sometimes an afterthought.
Anthony is a matchup problem for anybody, but especially so for the Jazz since they traded Ronnie Brewer to Memphis in February as a luxury-tax casualty. Wesley Matthews, Brewer's replacement at the 2, has been game to challenge the league's top scorers, but he's giving up three inches to Anthony. Utah would love to force Denver into throwing up some ill-advised shots from the outside, giving voracious rebounders such as Boozer (if he's healthy) and Paul Millsap a chance to clean the glass and ignite the break. Kirilenko is not the shot-blocker of his youth, but still could be an X-factor here, if Utah can successfully work him back into the mix after a month off.
Down the stretch is where Williams makes his living. Expect to see the ball in his hands as much as possible for Utah, especially if the Jazz are trying to close out a game. He's an 80 percent free-throw shooter.
Anthony is the obvious answer, and Billups has a justifiable reputation as a clutch player, but don't overlook J.R. Smith, a volume gunner who nevertheless is fearless about taking the last-second shot -- even if it's not always the smartest move.
Utah has been buffeted mentally all season, beginning with training camp stories about Boozer's impending free agency that were followed by a 19-17 start. The disappointment of losing not only the potential No. 2 seed, but also any home-court advantage at all, plus seeing Boozer go out with an injury -- all in the span of 24 hours -- would deflate most teams, but if any coach can keep them level, it's Sloan.
This year's Nuggets team was considered to possibly be Karl's best chance at making a run to the Finals. The coach's battle with throat cancer overshadowed that storyline. This is still a very talented roster, but it's unclear if Dantley -- who prior to this season had only a couple of fill-in games under his belt as a head coach -- will be able to guide them back to the second round.
Given the uncertain status of Kirilenko and especially Boozer, it's tough to pick the Jazz. But we'll say they take it down to the wire before the Nuggets win in seven, avenging the memories of LaPhonso Ellis, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and the rest of Denver's 1994 squad.
Geoff Lepper is a longtime NBA writer who is a correspondent for NBA.com.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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