Preview: Denver Nuggets conclude back-to-back in Utah

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

For the second time in less than a week, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz will face off in a crucial division matchup. And just as it was the case last week, one of the teams will be on the second night of a back-to-back.

Denver will be wrapping up a back-to-back following their dominant win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Denver built a double-digit lead early in the game and never looked back. The Nuggets continue to navigate without several key rotation players in Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Michael Porter Jr.

Utah has struggled recently, following a December and January during which they went 14-1. The Jazz have lost four-straight games, with two of those losses coming at the hands of Denver and Portland. Utah hasn’t played since Saturday, providing a major rest advantage for the Nugget’s division rival. Although he didn’t play in Utah’s 106-100 loss to Denver last week, Mike Conley has been reinserted into the starting lineup for the Jazz.

In their win against Utah six days ago, the Nuggets held a comfortable edge on the boards and took care of the ball (10 turnovers to 16 for the Jazz). Denver’s defense did an impressive job on Donovan Mitchell (four points on 1-of-12 shooting). Jordan Clarkson fueled Utah’s offense with 37 points.

Here are three keys to Wednesday’s game:

How does Conley impact this matchup?

As mentioned earlier, Mike Conley didn’t take the court at Pepsi Center last week. However, he posted 22 points, four rebounds and four assists on 9-of-20 shooting in his return against Portland over the weekend. Conley has struggled through an injury-plagued season, but he provides a healthy mix of scoring, playmaking and defense at the point guard position.

The 32-year-old guard averaged 15.3 points and 8.3 assists per game against the Nuggets last season, showcasing his ability to lead an offense from the point of attack. With Torrey Craig likely tasked with slowing down Mitchell once again, Denver will rely on Gary Harris to provide stellar defense on the perimeter on Wednesday against the veteran guard.

Can Jokić continue his scorching play?

Simply put, Nikola Jokić has played at an MVP level over the past month. When Denver needed him most, the Serbian big man stepped up and led the Nuggets to an 11-5 record in January despite all the injuries to the rotation. In the past 10 games, Jokić has averaged 24.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and eight assists per game, which includes a 28-point, 10-assist performance against Utah.

Denver’s two-time All-Star big man struggled against the Jazz last season, but with Derrick Favors no longer on the Jazz, Jokić found success against Utah last week. With his unorthodox post moves and ability to space the floor from beyond the arc, Jokić is the key to drawing Rudy Gobert away from the rim to help Denver’s guards attack inside the arc.

Defending the 3-point line

As Nuggets fans got a first-hand glimpse of the new-look Jazz last week, it was clear that this is a different Utah offense that can rely on knockdown shooters to make defenses pay from beyond the arc. Although Denver won the first contest between these two teams, Utah hit eight more 3-pointers than the Nuggets, with Clarkson shooting 7-of-12 from downtown alone.

The Jazz shot 17-of-37 from deep in last week’s matchup, which continued their impressive shooting performance on the season. Utah tops the league at 38.7 percent from beyond the arc this season, putting more pressure on Denver’s defenders to closeout well and chase shooters off the 3-point line. Given the rest advantage Utah will have on Wednesday, if the Jazz get hot from deep it could be a long night for the Nuggets.

Wednesday’s game will tip-off at 7 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude TV (Radio: 92.5FM).

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