Preview: Nuggets face Jazz for first time since dramatic 2020 playoff series win

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

The Nuggets (6-6) played hard for 48 minutes against the Warriors and were largely in control in their 114-104 win. They’ll need more of the same against a Utah Jazz (8-4) team that is still licking its wounds since its 2020 first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Nuggets. 
“I’m sure for teams like Utah and the Clippers, teams that lost 3-1 leads [against us], I’m sure there is a little bit more motivation playing us,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after Saturday’s practice. 
Utah comes into Sunday’s game sitting third in the crowded Western Conference and fifth in defensive rating (106) and net rating (5.2). The team is also third in opponent field-goal percentage (43.9) and has held five of its 12 opponents to under 100 points. The Nuggets’ No. 3-ranked offense will have its work cut out for it. 

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić
Michael Porter Jr, Health and Safety Protocols 
Greg Whittington, Left Knee Sprain 
Here are the storylines
Revenge on the mind?
The Jazz had a 3-1 lead against the Nuggets before ultimately succumbing to a historic rally that saw Denver advance out of the first round. While the Nuggets all publicly insist they look at the playoffs in its totality, the Jazz have had to spend their entire offseason asking, ‘What if?. Denver will have to be prepared for a team that will likely be trying to send a message Sunday night. 
Utah isn’t a great team offensively, averaging 110.7 points per game (18th), but its defensive intensity has been the backbone throughout its strong start. If there is one thing the Jazz do well on offensive, it’s three-point shooting. Quin Snyder’s team is third in made threes per game (16.3) and fourth in three-point percentage (39.6). The home team can ill-afford to let the visitors get going early from downtown. If the Jazz knock in a few threes early, it could spell the end of the Nuggets’ current three-game regular season win streak against the group. 
Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Rudy Gobert 

It’s always fun when the best offensive center in the game takes on the league’s best defensive center.
Here is the regular season stat line between the two men from the 2019-20 campaign: 
Jokić: 29.3 points, 12 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 2.7 steals, 56.3 percent on field goals
Gobert: 19.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 69.4 percent on field goals 
The two European big men matchup fairly evenly, but if there is one area where the Joker has separated himself is three-point shooting. With Gobert being a dominant shot blocker, Jokić takes the Jazz star out of his comfort zone by playing outside of the paint.  In last year’s playoff series between the two teams, Jokić averaged 6.6 attempts from downtown and converted at an almost 50 percent (47.8) clip. It is very likely he’ll look to use the same strategy Sunday. 

Can the bench keep it up?
In the last seven games, the Nuggets bench is fourth in plus/minus (4.3) and it is a big reason why the team is thriving during that span. 
In that same time frame, the reserves are putting up 40.7 points per game (seventh), knocking down 40.2 percent of its three-pointers (10th), and going to the line 7.6 times a night (seventh). Monte Morris and JaMychal Green have powered the group offensively while PJ Dozier and Isaiah Hartenstein have provided the defensive impetus. Facundo Campazzo is still working his way into the rotation but he’s been a jolt of energy when on the floor. The reserves have shown significant improvement from the beginning of the season. 
In December, the Nuggets bench was 24th in plus/minus (-2.9) and was averaging 32.8 points per contest (23rd). Since the on the court chemistry between the new players and last year’s holdovers has improved, the production has gone up along with it. 
Utah’s bench enters Sunday’s game ranked eighth in plus/minus at 1.5. The group is led by Jordan Clarkson, who has given Denver some issues in the past with his ability to score in bunches. He is currently averaging an impressive 17.1 points per game while shooting 42.2 percent from downtown in just 24.7 minutes per game. 


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