There will be an alluring scent of familiarity throughout the first round of the 2019-20 NBA Playoffs.
Division rivals will face off in the first round next week as the Denver Nuggets take on the Utah Jazz in the 3-6 matchup in the Western Conference.
Of course, this won’t be the typical playoff series with Denver not enjoying true homecourt advantage in the Orlando bubble. Furthermore, it’s unlikely either team will be at full strength throughout the series, which can play a major role in the outcome.
However, things go on and both teams will have to push through unique circumstances in this playoff series, the first between the two teams in a decade. The Jazz defeated the Nuggets in six games back in the 2010 playoffs.
In this series guide, we will take a closer look at the storylines, matchups and potential x-factors that could decide the series. With that being said, let’s start by taking a look back at how the 2019-20 regular-season series between the teams played out.
2019-20 regular-season series
If Gary Harris and Will Barton III miss time throughout this playoff series, the Nuggets can take comfort in knowing they defeated the Jazz in all three matchups this season despite being extremely shorthanded in each contest.
In the first meeting between the two teams in late January, Denver was missing Harris, Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap, but still managed to pull out a 106-100 victory over a mostly-healthy Jazz team.
Less than a week later, Denver pulled off one of the greatest regular-season victories in franchise history, defeating the Jazz in Utah on the second night of a back-to-back with just seven players taking the court. As a result of injuries and a trade, the Nuggets relied on the Nikola Jokić-Murray combination to prevail in a 98-95 grind-it-out affair.
Finally, Denver and Utah played in perhaps the most exciting game in the bubble, a 134-132 victory for the Nuggets in double overtime. Once again, Denver was without two starters and overcame an 18-point deficit to pull off the win.
Utah also missed a few key pieces in these regular-season matchups, most notably Mike Conley (Jan. 31) and Bojan Bogdanovic last week. Bogdanovic has been ruled out for the season, while Conley is expected to leave the bubble in the near future for the birth of his child.
Can Denver defend the 3-point line?
The old adage is that defense wins championships. While that isn’t the only thing that wins championships, being a good-to-great defensive team goes a long way in ensuring playoff success.
In that case, Denver might be in trouble after its performance on that end of the floor throughout the seeding games, especially when it came to defending on the perimeter.
According to Cleaning the Glass (which filters out garbage time), the Nuggets had the last-ranked defense in the bubble. Although there were several factors that played a role in this disappointing performance, 3-point defense was a major culprit.
Opponents shot 43.9 percent from beyond the arc against Denver in eight seeding games, which ranked 21st among the 22 teams in the bubble.
Why is this a concern for the Nuggets? Well, Utah just happens to be one of the elite 3-point shooting teams in the league. The Jazz ranked first in the league over the course of the season, connecting on 38.8 percent of their attempts from deep. That percentage increased in the three matchups against Denver, as the Jazz shot 53-of-131 (40.4 percent).
The most notable shooting performance came last week when Utah shot 22 of 55 from beyond the arc.
Denver’s aggressive defensive scheme when guarding the pick-and-roll can expose the team’s off-ball defenders, especially when tagging the roll man in the paint and attempting to recover to contest 3-point attempts from the corners.
If the Nuggets can’t limit Utah’s effectiveness from downtown, they will likely have to climb out of a tough hole in each game of the series, something that might be tougher to do with a shorthanded rotation.
Can Jokić continue to dominate Utah?
Below are Nikola Jokić’s stat lines in the three games against the Jazz this season:
28 points (11-of-19 shooting), 10 assists and three steals on Jan. 31
30 points (14-of-24 shooting), 21 rebounds and 10 assists on Feb. 5
30 points (11-of-21 shooting), 11 rebounds and seven assists on Aug. 8
Simply put, Jokić has had his way against the Jazz this season and if that continues in the upcoming playoff series, Denver should be able to advance to the conference semifinals.
When specifically matched up against Rudy Gobert, the Serbian big man was still able to be effective. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, the two big men were matched up for over 28 minutes across the three games this season, where Jokić shot 22 of 45 (48.9 percent) from the field.
Jokić has given Gobert trouble as a result of his unique ability to throw defenders off with his unorthodox moves in the post and inside the paint. The two-time All-Star can use his strength, footwork and a bevy of post moves to score against the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and he has done just that so far this season.
Of course, there is so much more to Jokić’s game than simple post play. If Utah decides to double-team or trap the Serbian big man, he can and likely will make the right pass for the open shot. Of course, opposing defenses must also be wary of Jokić’s throw-ahead passes to create scoring opportunities in transition and must also check him from deep, as he attempted over three 3-pointers per game this season.
How will the Nuggets attempt to slow Donovan Mitchell down?
With Bogdanovic out and Conley potentially missing part of the series, the Jazz offense will be even more reliant on Donovan Mitchell than usual.
Mitchell is a dynamic scorer, capable of lighting it up from all areas of the floor. The 23-year-old guard averaged 22 points, five assists and 4.6 rebounds per game over his last five seeding games, which included a 35-point, eight-assist performance in that double-overtime loss to Denver.
For the Nuggets, it remains to be seen if Gary Harris and Will Barton III will be back for the beginning of the series. Harris has been Denver’s best perimeter defender this season, but the Nuggets can rest assured knowing Torrey Craig will be available and ready for the challenge of defending Mitchell.
Throughout the regular season, it was Craig, not Harris, who received the majority of time defending Mitchell. Similar to the success he has had against Damian Lillard, Craig has done an admirable job limiting Mitchell in these opportunities.
"I got to give Torrey Craig credit, he made it tough on me,” Mitchell said following the first game between these two teams back in January. “He always does. He's a great defender."
Per NBA.com, Mitchell has only shot 1-of-4 against Craig in the nearly 11 minutes the two have directly matched up. When Harris matched up against Mitchell for a little over three minutes in one game this season, Mitchell shot 42.9 percent.
If Harris is back next week, expect him to defend Mike Conley or Jordan Clarkson when Jazz head coach Quin Snyder opts to play all three guards together. Craig will likely receive the lion’s share of minutes checking Mitchell, with Denver’s other forwards prepared to help when necessary.
Slowing down Mitchell will be instrumental in stagnating Utah’s offense, so look for Michael Malone to focus his defense on All-Star guard.
Matchup to watch: Jokić vs. Gobert
The outcome of the clearest direct “matchup” on the floor will likely decide the series between these two division rivals. Although Jokić has had a reasonable amount of success against the Stifle Tower this season, there will be moments throughout the series in which Gobert gives the two-time All-Star problems in the post.
Gobert’s height and wingspan make him a threat to block any and all shots around the basket, and if he is able to limit Jokić’s effectiveness in the post, Denver’s offense will have to recalibrate its attack on the perimeter.
Another way Jokić can help Denver’s offense is simply getting Gobert in foul trouble. The French big man owns the best net rating on the Jazz at +12.6 points per 100 possessions, mainly as a result of his incredible impact on the defensive end. When Gobert has been on the floor this season for Utah, the Jazz defense is 8.2 points per 100 possessions better.
Tony Bradley is Utah’s primary backup big man, and he lacks the experience and quickness defensively to keep up with Jokić, as seen in the dominant display the Serbian put on once Gobert fouled out in the double-overtime victory last week.
If Jokić routinely has performances in this first-round series that are similar to his regular-season performances against the Jazz, Denver’s offense should be able to score at a high level and push the Nuggets to victory.
If Gobert is able to frustrate Jokić, the Nuggets will have to rely on other players to step up on offense, which could make the series a more grind-it-out affair.
X-factor: Michael Porter Jr.
While most of the Nuggets players experienced their first taste of playoff basketball last season, Michael Porter Jr. wasn’t able to truly get that perspective from the bench as he recovered from previous injuries.
However, this time around, things will be very different for the 22-year-old forward. Not only is Porter Jr. healthy, he made a huge splash in the seeding games, so much so that he could continue to start against Utah in the first round.
After showcasing his scoring and rebounding abilities in flashes throughout the 2019-20 season before the league’s hiatus, Porter Jr. has embraced a starting role throughout the seeding games and has put up impressive numbers.
In the seven seeding games that he played in, Porter Jr. averaged 22 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in 33.3 minutes per game. The rookie forward dropped these impressive scoring numbers on elite efficiency, as he posted a 69.5 true shooting percentage and shot 42.2 percent from beyond the arc.
In the two games Porter Jr. played in against Utah this season, he averaged 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game on 53.8 true shooting percentage.
Porter Jr.’s presence in the starting lineup provides Malone and the Nuggets a new look to throw at teams. At 6’10”, Porter Jr. has a size advantage in nearly every matchup, while his cutting and prowess on the offensive glass make him a very capable partner for Jokić.
Utah has primarily used Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles and Georges Niang to defend Porter Jr. All three players lack the height or quickness to be able to effectively keep up with Porter Jr. if the young forward is hitting his shots and making effective cuts to the basket.
If Porter Jr.’s hot play from the seeding games carries over into the first round, Denver’s offense will be even more difficult to defend.