SALT LAKE CITY — Can you feel the excitement in the air? It’s NBA playoff time, even if it is 100 degrees outside here while the Utah Jazz are a couple thousand miles across the country.
The Jazz are getting ready to take on their Rockies rivals, the Denver Nuggets, Monday in Orlando. It’s the matchup the Jazz hoped for, playing a team they have pretty much dominated over the years, winning 115 of 198 games, nearly 60 percent of the time.
No one on the Jazz ever came right out and said it, but it seemed pretty obvious the Nuggets were the team the Jazz wanted to face in the first round of the playoffs, seeing how they tanked just enough games to finish a half game out of the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference to match up with No. 3 Denver.
They didn’t want to go against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that throttled them in the second game of the Orlando bubble portion of the season. They certainly didn’t want to face the prospect of a third-straight playoff series against the Houston Rockets, who eliminated them in five games each of the past two seasons. And they wanted to avoid the L.A. Clippers, which was only an outside possibility, anyway, if the Clips had fallen to third.
(3) Denver Nuggets
vs. (6) Utah Jazz
Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Nuggets 119, Jazz 107
Nuggets 80, Jazz 78, Nuggets win series 4-3
Instead the Jazz dropped two spots from where they stood in March, trying to win in half their games in Orlando and not so much in the other half, to get to play the Nuggets, who seem less formidable than the aforementioned teams.
But you know how the old saying goes — be careful what you wish for.
The Nuggets are 3-0 against the Jazz this year, although the latter was that double-overtime game in Orlando last week. While the Nuggets don’t have a superstar like James Harden or Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul, they do present a couple of serious problems for Utah’s two best players.
The Jazz have a matchup challenge against Nikola Jokic, the 7-foot 253-pound Serbian center who has averaged 28.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 9.0 assists against the Jazz this year. Jokic is a tough matchup for Rudy Gobert, because he pulls Gobert away from the basket, making the big Frenchman less effective defensively.
Then there’s Donovan Michell, who has struggled offensively against the Nuggets defensive-minded guard Torrey Craig. Mitchell went 1 for 12 (0 for 6 from 3-point range) with a season-low four points in the first loss in late January and just 8 for 24 (2 for 9) in the second game. In three games this year, Mitchell is just 8 for 31 when being guarded by Craig.
Even Mitchell admits Craig is tough to play against.
“He made it tough on me, he always does,” Mitchell said after his 1-for-12 game.
Mitchell did play better in Game 3, in fact he was incredible down the stretch when he nearly willed the Jazz to victory before they came up short in the 134-132 defeat. But he still shot just 12 for 33 that night and 5 for 16 from 3-point range.
For the Jazz to win, they’re going to have to get excellent performances from Gobert and Mitchell because without Bojan Bogdanovic, they just don’t have the firepower to match the Nuggets, who seem to come at you from all sides.
Besides Jokic, the Nuggets have Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and former Jazzman Paul Millsap, who is on the downward slide but still has something left in the tank. Two starters, Gary Harris and Will Barton, have been sidelined during the bubble, but if they’re ready to go, it will be that much tougher for the Jazz.
The Nuggets may not have the superstars, but they have much better depth than the Jazz, who can’t rely on double-digit games from the likes of Rayjon Tucker and Miye Oni, who played well in those games in Orlando the Jazz didn’t care to win.
The Jazz need Mike Conley to keep playing the way he has through much of the bubble season and definitely will need more production out of Joe Ingles, who hasn’t shot well over the last two weeks.
You can tell what the NBA thinks about the Jazz-Nuggets matchup. The first three games are all in the middle of the day Utah time, 11:30 a.m. Monday and 2 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday. The two teams don’t get a prime-time game until Sunday, when the Jazz play their second “home” game at 7 p.m. MDT.
So Jazz fans should get as excited as possible and hope their team can keep their season going long enough to play the Clippers next month. With the college football season slipping away, we need something to look forward to in September.