Preview: Denver Nuggets face division rival Jazz for first time this season

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The Denver Nuggets return home to kick off one of the most difficult back-to-backs any team will face this season. On Thursday, Denver will face a familiar division foe in the Utah Jazz for the first time in the 2019-20 season. Following that, the Nuggets will go on the road for a matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the best record in the league.

Denver will be traveling over 1,000 miles and crossing time zones before facing the Bucks. However, the Nuggets have been one of the most resilient teams in the league over the past two seasons, as they are 18-3 on the second night of a back-to-back.

Denver (32-15) fell behind early against the Memphis Grizzlies Tuesday and couldn’t climb out of a hole. The Nuggets struggled mightily to defend the paint, as Memphis scored 76 points in that area of the court. Denver continues to try and survive a stretch of injuries to key players in Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee.

This Jazz (32-15) team is very different than the teams that Denver has seen in recent seasons. Gone are players such as Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors, with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic in their places. Although Conley has dealt with injuries that have hampered his play, Bogdanovic has been one of the best signings from 2019 free agency, as he is averaging 21.3 points per game. Utah is one of the hottest teams in the league, as it has gone 19-4 dating back to early December. However, the Jazz have lost their past two games, including a road loss in San Antonio on Wednesday.

The two teams have split the last six matchups, though Utah holds a 115-80 edge all-time over Denver.

Here are three keys to Thursday’s showdown:

Defending the 3-point line

As mentioned earlier, this isn’t the same Jazz team the Nuggets have had to deal with in recent years. With the addition of Conley and Bogdanovic and an in-season trade for Jordan Clarkson, Utah packs a big scoring punch, especially from beyond the arc.

After posting the 14th-best offensive rating during the 2018-19 season, the Jazz own a 111.7 offensive rating, good for seventh in the league. A significant improvement from downtown has helped fuel the offensive surge, as the Jazz lead the league in 3-point percentage at 38.4 percent (they shot 35.6 percent last season).

The Nuggets still rank second in the league in defending the 3-point line, but the Jazz present one of the tougher challenges that Denver will have to deal with on Thursday.

Exploiting the mid-range

Utah’s defense is set up very much on an analytical approach, as the Jazz look to limit attempts from inside the paint and beyond the arc, thus inviting teams to settle for mid-range jumpers. Utah ranks fourth in opponent frequency of shots coming at the rim and fifth in frequency of shots from beyond the arc, while it ranks dead-last in opponent frequency of shots coming from the mid-range.

For a Nuggets team that ranks sixth in the league in frequency of shots coming from the mid-range, there is an opportunity for their offense to get into a rhythm from that area of the floor in order to find success against the Jazz’s sixth-ranked defense. This may be a tougher task for the Nuggets given Jamal Murray’s absence.

Can Jokić find success against Utah?

The Jazz presented a tough matchup for Nikola Jokić last season, as the combination of Favors and Rudy Gobert presented multiple impactful defenders to guard the Serbian big man in the post. Jokić averaged just 13.3 points per game on 37.3 percent shooting from the field last year against Utah, a far cry from his season averages of 20.1 points per game and 51.1 percent shooting.

With Favors now in New Orleans and Utah deploying a smaller starting lineup that includes Bogdanovic, Ingles and Royce O’Neale, it’s likely that Gobert will be tasked with slowing down Denver’s All-Star big man. If Jokić can knock down his 3-pointers to draw Gobert out of the paint, it could do wonders for Denver’s offense.

Projected starters: Will Barton III, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokić

Thursday’s game will tip at 8:30 p.m. MT and will air on TNT (Radio: 92.5FM).

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