By Daniel Paiz
The focus of the Mile High Bubble for Denver has been postseason prep. Important minutes for the Nuggets’ bench in the bubble will be handy experience against the Utah Jazz. There is something important to remember: styles make fights. Luckily this isn’t a literal fight, but basketball is a game of style matchups and momentum. However, it’s important to tackle how each side measures up in different areas.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Jerami Grant are the three guys to watch for Nuggets fans. The wild cards for Denver on offense are the youth movement: Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol, and PJ Dozier. Whomever of the three gain momentum will determine how honest Utah’s defense has to play. Should the hot hand skip around, Utah will have to decide where to put more of their defensive emphasis. Let’s get deeper though and compare the frontcourts, backcourts and benches of both Denver and Utah.
With Rudy Gobert (22 points, 13 boards on Aug.8th vs. Denver) under the rim, Jokic will need to draw out the Frenchman on defense. This will create more room for cutting and attacking the rim, and creating offensive mismatches in Denver’s favor. It’ll be up to Utah’s defensive guard play to handle cuts to the basket from pick-n-rolls that Murray and Porter Jr will have with Jokic and Mason Plumlee.
Gobert will have to badger Jokic inside the paint. He’ll also have to create a defensive problem for Jokic with his own pick-n-roll set up with Donavan Mitchell. It’s hard to tell whether Paul Millsap for Denver or Royce O’Neale for Utah will have a bigger series, but their ability to bail out their All-Star teammates might be an overlooked one.
Donovan Mitchell will be the focus of the backcourts from national media in this series (35 points in that 2OT loss to Denver Aug. 8th). That’s fine. Utah frankly needs Mitchell to put up buckets in bunches. Jamal Murray does not have the same urgency placed on his play; yes, he’ll need to consistently get to the hoop and run the offense whenever Jokic isn’t deciding to play Point Center. But Murray is almost expected to do less than Mitchell. If he can play consistent, foul-free defense that frustrates Mitchell, it’ll push things towards Denver’s favor.
Michael Porter Jr. will be getting a lot more looks in this series because of the focus on Murray and Jokic. With Gary Harris and Will Barton still on uncertain timetables, Porter Jr. will be the de facto third option. Monte Morris will likely run the offense with the second unit when Murray’s on the bench, and he too will be an overlooked spark plug should Utah not respect his ability to score and create opportunities.
Utah will likely rely heavily on Jordan Clarkson, due to numerous starters being out. Mike Conley Jr. will be outside the bubble to welcome the birth of his third child, and Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the season due to injury. Georges Niang and Tony Bradley will likely pick up more minutes due to this. If Emmanuel Mudiay and Ed Davis are back from injury, that’ll help Utah’s guard play and give Gobert a slight break.
Denver has an ace in the hole when it comes to Jerami Grant. He’s had games where he’s taken over, and he can do so if called upon again. Mason Plumlee is another hustle player who can come up with big moments when momentum is in the balance; in smaller doses, Bol Bol and PJ Dozier do the same. Denver’s youthful backups will sway the final outcome.
Sizing up the coaches
Coach Mike Malone appears to have figured out how to adjust lineups in the bubble. That much needed area of improvement will hopefully pay dividends in tight spots. While the assumption in such scenarios might be to get Jokic, Murray or Paul Millsap the ball, this is where momentum will create defensive uncertainty. If Porter Jr. has 35 points one night, he might be option one depending on the needed bucket.
One thing that Malone has yet to uncover is how to push this team to improve defensively. It’s easy to point to Harris and Barton’s absence, but that removes responsibility from the Nuggets who have been playing. Teams ramp up differently and Denver hopes to hit the court with a postseason mentality that slows down Utah’s potent scorers.
Coach Quinn Snyder from Utah might feel the same amount of pressure Jamal Murray does: not as much as you think. Missing several key players, it’s a next guy up mindset. Should things get hectic from Denver’s depth, resilience and reliance upon Gobert and Mitchell to right the ship is Snyder’s bread and butter.
The playoffs are a litmus test for potential manifesting into results, and Utah will be a harder out than talking heads are giving them credit for.
Intangibles inside the Mile High Bubble might sway the game
Denver’s depth tests their opponent’s bench and defensive determination. For example, fresh legs might result in Jokic getting a five minute rest versus a two minute rest in the third quarter. Intangibles are just as important as momentum and matchups; they’re just mentioned after the final buzzer is said and done.
As far as depth is concerned, Utah is missing a few key pieces. Denver seems used to missing theirs. Their current rotation seems to adjust for that factor on nearly every aspect outside of defense. Barton and Harris for Denver often aid Denver’s defensive efforts. So Grant, Plumlee and others will have to boost their defensive efforts.
Denver wins the best of seven series against Utah in six games. This series will be close, it will have lead changes galore, and it’ll come down to how the stars on each team show up. Those stars will determine how much work the role players have to put in. Expect quite possibly the best series of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs.