6:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Jazz -2.5, Over/Under: 220
As the Playoffs rage on, the first major upset is upon us as the Sixth-Seeded Utah Jazz look to eliminate the Third-Seeded Denver Nuggets in Game Five of their First Round Series from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. For those looking for parity within the NBA’s Bubble, the Western Conference has offered that in spades as three of the four series have packed more than a few surprises, particularly this one, as the Jazz (44-28, 6th in Western Conference) have performed a complete about-face with three consecutive victories placing them on the precipice of advancing to the West Semifinals for the third time in four years. Coming into the Playoffs, it would have been an understatement to proclaim that Utah were not among the favorites to make much headway in the Association’s new environment in Orlando. After all, there were numerous things working against them, such as losing sharpshooting Forward (and second leading scorer), Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 PTs, 44.7% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.1 AST, 15.6 PER), to a broken wrist shortly before the league-wide shutdown due tot he Covid-19 Pandemic. Returning from the hiatus, Quin Snyder’s charges also struggled mightily during the abridged conclusion of the Regular Season, going 3-5 in the Seeding Games, causing them to fall down the Standings in the competitive Western Conference. Granted, some would point out that they instituted that slide on purpose, in an attempt to avoid the Houston Rockets, who had eliminated them with ease in each of the last two Postseasons. Finally, thanks to these games being decided in a single location, home court advantage would not be a factor, which is big for a team that has traditionally enjoyed one of the more consistently favorable advantages in the friendly (or is it unfriendly?) atmosphere in Salt Lake City.
This of course brings us to their current affair with the Nuggets, who in not being the Rockets, were viewed as a much more favorable matchup, which was indeed a curious notion as Denver swept them in the Regular Season 3-0. And then there was Game One, which was a veritable track meet between the two sides, with the Jazz eventually running out of games in a 125-135 loss that was decided in Overtime. Despite a thrilling offensive showing, headlined by a historic 57-Point explosion from Donovan Mitchell (24.0 PTS, 44.9% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.8 PER), Utah’s defensive struggles continued to hurt them as they were carved up on 51.6% shooting from the field, including a torrid 22-of-41 from beyond the arc (53.7%), where they were outscored by Eighteen Points. So shorthanded and without home court against an opponent that clearly had their number, what in the hell was Snyder & Co supposed to do to reverse their fortunes, you ask? Ironically, they’ve reverted to the defensive prowess that they had exhibited over the previous three season in which they were one of the league’s most staunch, with the physical Royce O’Neale (6.3 PTS, 43.3% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 9.5 PER) providing an imposing presence on the perimeter, while the towering Rudy Gobert (15.1 PTS, 69.3% FG, 13.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.0 BLK, 21.7 PER) has reminded us all why he’s the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, with another defensive sparkplug, veteran Point Guard, Mike Conley (14.4 PTS, 40.9% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 14.1 PER), applying pressure at the point of attack. After getting absolutely shredded in Game One, the defense has really locked down allowing 106.3 Points on 44.2% shooting from the field and 38.5% from downtown, all the while committing just 19.3 Fouls, which has kept the tempo of play in the favor of the Jazz. Coincidentally, losing Bogdanovic and opting to replace him with a more defensive-oriented player such as O’Neal has not caused a regression on the offensive end, for Utah has continued to put their foot on the gas in this regard, averaging a prolific 125.7 Points on a healthy 53.3% shooting, including a blistering 47.3% from the perimeter, while dishing out 24.3 Assists in comparison to committing a scant 8.7 Turnovers. That last figure is HUGE for this group, for taking care of the basketball had been a major issue over the past few seasons, including 2019-2020 in which they committed 15.1 Turnovers per Game (21st Overall). This is the primary reason they went out of their way to acquire Conley, though it’s been the growth of another player that has really accelerated their improvement in efficiency…
So often in the NBA Playoffs, it’s the stars that ultimately decide who advances and who goes home, and in this unique environment that the league as cultivated in Orlando there have been a slew of young faces that have emerged as it’s future, and thankfully for the faithful in Utah, they have one in the form of the aforementioned Mitchell. In just his third year with the franchise, the 23-Year Old has improved incrementally, even earning his first All-Star Selection earlier this season, but in this particularly Series with the Nuggets has taken his game to another level entirely. The young Guard struggled mightily in the previous two Playoffs, particularly last year in a 1-4 defeat to Houston in which he managed to shoot just 32.1% from the field and 25.6% from three, while committing more Turnovers (4.2) than Assists (3.2). Many around the league would argue that his struggles were the case of Mitchell being miscast as the team’s Point Guard (or primary ballhandler), which was necessitated due to their struggles at that possession. However, it appears that that aforementioned move to bring in Conley has finally payed off, for it has allowed Mitchell to play off the ball a bit more and do what he does best, and that is attack; you really can’t blame the Nuggets for trying to avoid this guy around the NBA’s campus in Orlando, for he has OWNED them in this Series, averaging a robust 39.5 Points on 56.3% shooting from the field, including an overwhelming 51.4% from beyond the arc, while knocking down 10.5-of-11.0 Free Throws per Game, and dishing out 5.8 Assists in comparison to committing 3.0 Turnovers. After serving as more of a playmaker in Games Two and Three, Mitchell once again eviscerated Denver in Game Four’s epic 129-127 victory, totaling Fifty-One Points on 15-of-27 shooting (55.6%), including 5-of-7 from downtown (57.1%), and 17-of-18 from the Charity Stripe (94.4%), while also adding Four Rebounds and Seven Assists. Furthermore, Eighteen Points of his total came in the Fourth Quarter, with that performance putting him in some very esteemed company: in dropping Fifty Points on two occasions within the same Series, he joined a list that includes the likes of Wilt Chamberlain (1960), Michael Jordan (1988 and 1993), and Allen Iverson (2001). ‘Nuff said.
Meanwhile, what in the name of Alex English has happened to the Nuggets (46-27, 3rd in Western Conference)? Picked by some as a dark horse to come out of the Wild, Wild, West, this team has once again underwhelmed in the Playoffs, and find themselves on the brink of being eliminated prematurely for the second consecutive Postseason. However, all things considered, if they do happen to receive their proverbial walking papers today, it will sting far more than it did a year ago. Let’s backtrack to the 2019 Playoffs, where Denver entered the tournament as the new kids on the block, impressing throughout the campaign with a plethora of young talent, led by versatile Center, Nikola Jokic (19.9 PTS, 52.8% FG, 31.4% 3FG, 9.7 REB, 7.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 24.9 PER), en route to earning the Second Seed out West. From the very beginning it would appear that their lack of experience at that level would hinder them, as the veteran-laden San Antonio Spurs battled them relentlessly through seven games before ultimately ceding defeat, followed by another grueling affair with the Portland Trail Blazers that also went the distance, though ended differently with Mike Malone’s charges falling in the seventh and final chapter. An Offseason of building further continuity seemed to do them good, as they hovered behind the two Los Angeles clubs throughout the term, though injuries ravaged them around the middle of the schedule, preventing them from ever really reaching maximum health. Guards, Gary Harris (10.4 PTS, 42.0% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 9.7 PER), Jamal Murray (18.5 PTS, 45.6% FG, 34.6% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.7 PER), and Will Barton (15.1 PTS, 45.0% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.6 PER), all missed at least fourteen games with various injuries, while veteran Forward, Paul Millsap (11.6 PTS, 48.2% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 16.9 PER), was sidelined for another twenty-two.
And with that in mind the signs were indeed present that this would be their unfortunate fate, for forget the Bubble, this is a team has struggled mightily since the All-Star Break. Beset by that list of aforementioned injuries, the Nuggets were just 5-5 in the period between the Break and Covid-19 Shutdown, and it’s clear that the four-month hiatus wasn’t enough to help them get back to full strength, as they’ve been even worse since the Restart, going 3-5 in the Seeding Games as Malone tinkered further with his Rotation with some very UNIQUE Lineups to say the least. Altogether, Denver entered the Playoffs 8-10 since the All-Star Break, with their defense looking in shambles; opponents averaged 116.8 Points per Game on 48.0% shooting from the field, including 40.2% from beyond the arc, while attempting 24.0 Free-Throws, and dishing out 27.3 Assists in comparison to just 13.3 Turnovers. Furthermore, in those Eight Seeding Games, they got even worse in that regard, allowing 123.3 Points on 49.4% shooting, including 44.8% from three, 25.8 Free-Throw Attempts, and 28.3 Assists. And now we come to this Series with the Jazz, who despite besting three times in the Regular Season have humiliated them with their offensive prowess. Earlier we covered just how well they’ve performed offensively, but it takes two to tango and the Nuggets have provided very little resistance in stopping them, yielding 43.3% shooting from the perimeter, while getting outrebounded (Minus-2.0), and forcing a mere 10.3 Turnovers. Simply put, they’re getting outplayed in virtually every area, for the Jazz have outscored them by 12.0 Points per Game overall in this Series. It appears that this is where the injuries have hurt them the most, for the aforementioned Harris (Hip) and Barton (Knee) have yet to suit up through the first four games, depriving the Rotation of valuable depth, and above all else perimeter defense at the point of attack. We’ve talked at length about the exploits of Donovan Mitchell, who has had his way with whomever Malone has thrown at him, while promising young prospect, Michael Porter Jr. (9.3 PTS, 50.9% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 19.8 PER), has been all but relegated to the Bench due to his lack of defensive effort. That’s really a shame, for Porter, who missed his entire rookie season following back surgery, really began to exhibit his immense potential during the Seeding Games; in 33.3 Minutes per Game he averaged 22.0 Points on 55.1% shooting, including 42.2% from three, along with 8.6 Rebounds, 1.6 Assists, 1.0 Steal, and 0.9 Blocks. This created a bit of conundrum for the Coaching Staff, who initially opted to play keep him entrenched in the Starting Lineup instead of bringing wither Harris or Barton back, but his dismal showing on the defensive end has placed the 22-Year Old right back on the Bench. Granted, he’s most likely the future of the franchise, but at present this has become nothing more than a learning experience.
Earlier we talked about how quickly this Series has changed since Game One, which at this point really must look like nothing more than an aberration for the Nuggets. In the Opener, they never really stopped the Jazz, they simply outscored them, shooting 51.6% from the field, including 22-of-41 from beyond the arc (53.7%), featuring six different players in double-figures led by Jamal Murray’s Thirty Six Points, followed by Nikola Jokic’s Twenty-Nine, while the Bench outscored that of their counterpart (38-26). However, while Murray has remained red-hot, oftentimes matching the aforementioned Mitchell tit for tat, which he did in Game Four totaling Fifty Points on 18-of-31 shooting (58.1%), Utah’s adjustments on the defensive end have caused Denver to cool off just enough to outscore them, which has made all the difference. Though he’s remained productive, Jokic (25.3 PTS, 8.3 REB, 5.3 AST through four games), has at time struggled mightily against Gobert’s length, and with Porter relegated to the Bench, the spacing that he enjoys isn’t quite there with Millsap alongside him. Furthermore, and perhaps the most alarming issue for Malone & co has been the disparity in Free-Throws. This is something that is frequently debated during the Playoffs, with teams oftentimes enjoying it at their home venues. Well, since there’s certainly no Home Court Advantage within the Bubble, one would imagine that the playing field would be leveled in this regard, so to speak, right? Hardly, folks. Utah has clearly been the aggressor, and the officials have rewarded them for it, netting 82-of-102 Free-Throws (80.4%) through the first four outings, in comparison to just 54-of-65 for Denver (83.1%), outscoring them by a staggering Twenty-Eight Points, or in other words an average margin of 7.0 Points. Think about that: the Jazz have attempted thirty-seven more singles than the Nuggets, and have actually made more than there opponent has attempted altogether, with the aforementioned Mitchell planting a damn flag at the Stripe (42-of-44 FT).