10:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Nuggets -1.5, Over/Under: 215
Western contenders clash as the red-hot Utah Jazz meet the decimated Denver Nuggets from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. As they have in previous seasons, the Jazz (32-15, 3rd in Western Conference) have overcome a relatively slow start to catch fire, rocketing up the standings out West where they currently sit ahead of tonight’s opponent at third in the conference, just a game out of second. This is seriously becoming quite a habit for Utah, who in the 2017-18 campaign overcame a 17-26 start to win thirty-one of their final thirty-nine games, and in 2018-19 managed to put a 20-21 start behind them to string together a 30-11 mark heading into the Playoffs. This term, Quin Synder’s charges have begun their onslaught a bit earlier than we’re accustomed to, rallying back from a middling 13-11 start to win nineteen of their last twenty-four outings. Granted, that surge has been tempered a bit due to back-to-back defeats (which we’ll get into shortly), but this team has proven just how formidable they can be when they’re firing on all cylinders. Of course, the Jazz went out of their way to become major players in the Offseason, bolstering their roster with the additions of former All-Star Point Guard, Mike Conley Jr. (12.6 PTS, 37.7% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 4.1 AST, 11.8 PER), and criminally underrated Forward, Bojan Bogdanovic (21.2 PTS, 45.3% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.0 AST, 16.5 PER), which left many in the basketball community proclaiming them as a bonafide contender for an NBA Championship, which would be the first in the franchise’s history. The slow start was indicative of developing the proper chemistry to contend, particularly given Conley’s extensive injury history, but now that he appears to be healthy, Utah has found a long-sought solution at Point Guard, which is something that has evaded them in recent years. It also helps that the system in place has placed an emphasis on sharing the responsibilities of distributing the basketball, with the third-year star, Donovan Mitchell (25.0 PTS, 46.2% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 20.7 PER), and sharpshooting Forward, Joe Ingles (10.7 PTS, 44.5% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 5.0 AST, 13.3 PER), 4.2 and 5.0 Assists per Game respectively, with the 32-Year Old chipping in 4.1. A year after not having enough players to properly initiate the Offense, and Snyder appears to have the luxury of multiple players that can do so on the court together. As a result, this is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league, ranking Fifth Overall in Field Goal Percentage (47.4%), and Eighth in Two-point Percentage (53.3%), while leading the NBA in Three-Point Percentage (38.4%). Furthermore, they do a solid job of getting to the Charity Stripe, sporting a FT/FGA Percentage of 21.1% (7th Overall). Fortunately for the faithful out there in Salt Lake City, that improvement on the offensive end of the court hasn’t forced them to sacrifice much of anything on the defensive end, where they’ve long been one of the league’s most staunch deterrents. Then again, that’s likely to remain the standard as long the towering Rudy Gobert (15.7 PTS, 68.6% FG, 14.6 REB, 1.6 AST, 2.0 BLK, 22.9 PER) continues to man the middle; the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year anchors a unit that ranks in the Top-10 in a slew of categories, including Points Allowed (106.7), Assists Allowed (20.7), Free-Throw Attempts Allowed (21.5), Field Goal Percentage (44.7%), and Defensive Rebounding Percentage (79.4%) just to name a few. They’ll need to get back to basics a bit after suffering consecutive losses to the likes of the Houston Rockets (117-26) and San Antonio Spurs (120-127), with each proving disappointing in their own right. The former came with their opponent torching them without All-Stars, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, while the latter featured a watershed First Quarter giving up Thirty-Seven Points. Simply put, if they’re going to fashion themselves as the best defensive team in the league, then performances like the one they authored last night certainly won’t help their profile. On the game, San Antonio shot a blistering 56.1% from the field, including 15-of-22 (68.2%) in the first period alone, with ten different players scoring for the Spurs. Mitchell led the ay for the visitors with Thirty-One Points on 9-of-20 shooting from the floor (45.0%), including 10-of-10 from the Free-Throw Line (100.0%), while Jordan Clarkson (13.8 PTS, 44.6% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 14.8 PER), who has been an absolute asset coming off the Bench since he was acquired via trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers back in late December, added Twenty Points. Though this affair was of a higher scoring variety than either team would really refer to associate themselves with, it was no doubt aided by a whopping Fifty-Nine Free-Throws between them with a combined Forty-Nine Personal Fouls. As we stated earlier, the loss dropped Utah into a proverbial tie with Denver for Third in the Western Conference, though the Jazz currently own the tiebreaker on the strength of a stronger strength of schedule. Tonight’s meeting will mark the first of two in a week’s time, with the second date set for February 5th at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Meanwhile, with the all-Star Break within sight, the Nuggets (32-15, 4th in Western Conference) are simply trying to get healthy so that they don’t lose their standing within the hierarchy of the West. Of course, there’s never really a good time to sustain injuries, and as a result Denver has played largely mediocre basketball since late December. In fact, Mike Malone’s charges, who this time a year ago sat atop the Western Conference altogether and would not relinquish their standing until March, entered Christmas Day with a sterling 21-8 record. Starting with that disappointing 100-112 defeat at home to the New Orleans Pelicans, they have gone just 11-7, taking a proverbial step backwards once they manage to make some progress. That was precisely the case when we last saw them, following back-to-back victories over the Pelicans (113-106) and the Rockets (117-110), with a disappointing 96-104 loss on the road the upstart Memphis Grizzlies. While their opponent has surprised many this season and certainly not to be overlooked, the outcome was perhaps a reasonable one given the names and faces that were sidelined due to injury. Malone was without Starters, Jamal Murray (17.6 PTS, 43.5% FG, 32.2% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.4 STL, 17.0 PER) and Paul Millsap (11.9 PTS, 46.8% FG, 41.3% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 17.1 PER), along with key rotational big man, Mason Plumlee (7.4 PTS, 60.5% FG, 5.6 REB, 2.4 AST, 19.3 PER), who had been afflicted by an variety of maladies, which led to the visitors being relegated below 100 Points for the first time in thirty-eight outings, which was the club’s longest such run since the early 1990s. This one was over early, folks, as Denver came out of the gate cold shooting a miserable 5-of-20 from the field (25.0%), with more Turnovers (5) than Assists (3). Though they would pick things up as the contests progressed, their dreadful start proved to much to overcome for in the end they topped out at a poor 37.2% shooting from the floor with Nineteen Turnovers. The only reason they managed to close the gap was the success that they enjoyed from beyond the arc, where they knocked down 17-of-45 Attempts (37.8%), outscoring the home side by Thirty-Three Points. All-Star Center, Nikola Jokic (19.8 PTS, 50.7% FG, 32.4% 3FG, 10.1 REB, 6.5 AST, 1.0 STL 24.2 PER), whose start turn a year ago was a major reason for their success, carried the group with a team-high Twenty-Five Points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), including 3-of-6 from downtown (50.0%), along with Thirteen Rebounds and Five Assists, but was also the culprit for EIGHT Turnovers. The rest of the team predictably struggled to make much of an impact with many players having hard performing in expanded roles; the Nuggets sans Jokic accounted for just Seventy-One Points on 24-of-70 shooting (34.3%), with Jerami Grant (11.1 PTS, 46.6% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 1.1 AST, 14.0 PER) and Gary Harris (10.7 PTS, 41.6% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 10.0 PER) the only other of their number to reach double-figures in scoring. On the opposite end, their defense left a lot to be desired, with the Grizzlies shooting a blistering 56.1%, assisting on a very healthy thirty-two of their Forty-Six Field Goals. So with that affair in the rearview mirror, the question is what exactly will the Nuggets have to work with tonight? Murray (Ankle), Millsap (Knee), and Plumlee (Foot) are all out for this meeting with the Jazz, while Harris (Adductor Strain) is on a minutes restriction. Of course, this has come at a terrible time for Denver, who has faced a veritable buzz saw with one hand tied behind their back; their last three opponents have posted a combined 33-7 record in the month of January alone, with Utah 11-3 during that period of time. And speaking of their opponent tonight, it’s likely that Jokic will need more than just a bit of help in order to carry his side to victory; in four meetings last season (1-3), the massive Serbian had to serve in the role of playmaker as Gobert’s presence kept him from having his way in the paint, averaging 12.3 Rebounds and 7.8 Assists to make up for just 13.3 Points on 37.3% shooting, including 1-of-11 from downtown (9.1%). This is where a young talent such as Michael Porter Jr. (7.7 PTS, 51.4% FG, 43.2% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 19.9 PER) can make an impact; Denver drafted the versatile, 6-10 Forward 14th Overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, knowing that he would miss the entirety of his rookie campaign rehabbing from a back injury. In 13.6 Minutes per Game thus far, the 21-Year Old7.7 Points on 51.4% shooting, including 43.2% from long range, along with 4.0 Rebounds. In scoring just Eight Points in that aforementioned loss to Memphis, Porter snapped a streak of seven straight games scoring in double-figures, in which he averaged 16.0 Points on 50.6% shooting in 25.2 Minutes. Denver believes he has serious star potential, and if that’s the case these are the games he needs to start making an impact.