The Nuggets and Jazz appear to be on a collision course in the playoffs

Jan 18, 2022, 6:38 AM
Nikola Jokic...
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Sometimes, sports allow us to see things coming from a mile away. Halfway through the NBA season, it looks like the Nuggets and division rival Utah are on a collision course to meet in the first round of the playoffs.

After winning four of five before the loss to Utah on Sunday night, Denver sits firmly in the sixth spot, where they will likely finish with 40 games to play. Nikola Jokic’s consistent star presence for Denver should be enough to hold off the Clippers, Wolves, and Lakers for sixth. The Nuggets have shown they can handle all three of these teams this season, while none of them have proven they can be trusted to make a big push in the standings.

The Nuggets are only 1.5 games behind Dallas for fifth, but lost the season series to the Mavericks. Jason Kidd’s team has also developed a strong defensive identity that should allow them to hold off challengers for the fifth spot, barring Luka Doncic missing any extended time the rest of the season.

Utah is 3-0 against Denver after another convincing win on Sunday night and will battle with upstart Memphis for the third seed in the Western Conference for the rest of the season. The Grizzlies won nine of 10, while the Jazz stumbled on a 5-5 stretch making things interesting for the moment, but Utah’s proven history and veteran leadership should be able to right the ship and get things back on track.

So what would that mean for the Nuggets? It doesn’t look good if you’re only judging their head-to-head match-ups this season:

Denver 110
Utah 122

Nikola Jokic had 24 points in just 15 minutes before leaving the game with a knee contusion. Denver ran out of gas without the MVP and was outscored 31-20 in the fourth quarter.

Utah 115
Denver 109

Utah won the second half and won its 10th straight road game behind 36 points and 13 rebounds from Bojan Bogdanovic. Michael Malone and much of his coaching staff missed the game due to health-and-safety protocols.

Utah 125
Denver 102

Utah broke a four-game losing streak and overcame a Jokic triple-double for the road win. The Jazz went on a 15-0 run to end the third and start the fourth quarter and Denver was held to 44 second-half points.

On the surface, it looks like Denver has been dominated by Utah. The Nuggets best chance to beat the Jazz was the Jan. 5 game, but the Nuggets couldn’t take advantage of a small Utah lineup playing without Rudy Gobert. The other two contests weren’t particularly close.

But if these two teams are to meet in a first-round playoff series, we need to look at these games a little more closely before advancing Utah to the second round.

First, let’s account for when the games were played on the schedule. Denver was on a back-to-back was playing a rested Utah team in two of the three games:

Game 1: Denver lost at home to Cleveland and traveled to Salt Lake for the back to back. Utah had three days off coming home after a win in Sacramento.

Game 2: One day of rest for both teams after a road game.

Game 3: Denver played the second of back-to-back home games after beating the Lakers on Saturday night. Utah had three days off coming off of a four-game losing streak.

Next, let’s look at what Jokic has done to the Jazz. He’s posted 28.3 points, 14 rebounds, and 10.3 assists per game and shot 63 percent in just 29 minutes on average in the three matchups. He was dominating the first game in October before leaving due to injury in the first half. The reigning MVP is the only player in the league that consistently torches Rudy Gobert and Utah has no answer for him. In the playoffs, Jokic will play more than 29 minutes and won’t be playing on a back-to-back.

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. While Utah has been mostly healthy all year, Denver doesn’t know who is available to play more nights than not. When considering a playoff series with the Jazz, or anyone, we need to know who will be playing for the Nuggets.

Will Barton has missed the last two playoff runs due to injury, including Denver’s 3-1 comeback over Utah in the bubble. He’s been available most of the season.

Recent clips of Michael Porter Jr. rising on his jump shot and Jamal Murray throwing alley-oops to himself have been encouraging for many Nuggets fans. While neither is close to returning, it does allow many to ask “what if” when looking for any update on the two young stars.

Maybe the team will provide some insight around the All-Star break, but I wouldn’t count on it. They’re not going to rush either player back regardless of playoff position, and there’s no reason to create a narrative around any possible returns.

As constructed, a first-round playoff series with the Jazz probably ends much the same way the three games have so far this year. But “if” Denver were to get either or both of Porter and Murray back, we’d be looking at an entirely different series.

April 1st is the day many have circled as a possible Murray return. Denver would only have five regular-season games remaining to work him into the rotation.

The Nuggets played five games with the lineup of Jokic, Gordon, Porter, Barton, and Murray last season. They went 4-1 with the only loss being in the game Murray was injured. Something tells me Denver would like their chances with nothing to lose as the sixth seed.

Denver and Utah appear destined to meet in the first round again, but the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion.


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The Nuggets and Jazz appear to be on a collision course in the playoffs