Jazz, Nuggets face off in possible playoff preview
The Denver Nuggets took care of one Northwest Division rival and now they're ready to take on the next.
The Utah Jazz, always a tough test for Denver, are in town Thursday night to try to slow down the Nuggets' drive for the division title and a top-two seed in the Western Conference. Denver is brimming with confidence after a 121-112 win over Oklahoma City on national TV on Tuesday night.
Thursday's game is also being nationally televised, which is becoming the norm for the Nuggets. They have been near the top of the Western Conference all season and are almost assured of reaching the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
Tuesday's win was their 42nd, clinching a winning record with 22 games left. Denver has reeled off five straight wins behind All-Star center Nikola Jokic and a healthy lineup again. Jokic was a rebound shy of his 13th triple-double of the season against the Thunder.
Jokic has played well in the clutch all season, and Tuesday was no different. He played solid defense and hit five free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
"When the game's on the line, we're going to one guy: Nikola Jokic," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after Tuesday's win. "He's been able to score in the post against single coverage, double teams. We've won so many close games ... and a lot of those you can attribute to Nikola being effective and efficient in the post and score, make the right play or go to the foul line and make a free throw."
Denver is right behind Golden State for the top spot in the West and increased its lead in the Northwest Division to four games with Tuesday's win. The Jazz are eight games behind the Nuggets and sitting in sixth in the conference standings after their 111-105 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night. A little movement either way and Thursday's game could be a preview of a first-round matchup.
Similarly to last season the Jazz started slow but have come on in the second half of the season. Utah is 16-6 since a loss at Toronto on Jan. 1 and can match Denver at most positions, including having a dynamic big man in Derrick Favors.
The Jazz are also playing at a faster pace than most NBA teams despite having two big men in the starting lineup in Favors and Rudy Gobert. Utah wants to run, just like the Nuggets.
"The biggest thing for us is we came into this season and we felt like we had that advantage if we started running," point guard and leading scorer Donovan Mitchell told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We've done a great job in practice of really honing that in and hammering the nail as far as getting up and down in transition. That's something that you can't really scout and can't really teach."
Where Denver holds an advantage is depth. The Nuggets have played much of the season with key players sidelined but other than an ankle injury to forward Trey Lyles they are healthy. Forward Paul Millsap has been making big impacts since returning from a foot injury and guard Gary Harris has returned to being a lockdown defender and scoring threat after missing seven games.
"His defense sets the tone for a lot of things we do," Millsap told The Denver Post.
The Jazz may be shorthanded Thursday night. Guard Ricky Rubio left the win over the Clippers with left hamstring tightness and didn't return.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 28, 2019