Lackluster Nuggets Defense Has No Answers For Jazz
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Playoff series’ are often a game of give and take, move and countermove. Throughout a seven-game setting, the team that takes the most, and gives up the least will win the series. Between the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets, over the last eight quarters of basketball, the Nuggets defense has been all give and no take.
The Jazz enveloped the Nuggets 124-87 in game three to take a 2-1 series lead, but the series feels far more lopsided than the record. The Jazz have outscored the Nuggets by 56 over the last 96 minutes of basketball. Denver has won only one quarter during the stretch, a meaningless 28-20 advantage in a fourth quarter they entered trailing by 27.
The Jazz built a 31 point lead in the fourth quarter of game two, only to be outdone by 39 for stretches during the fourth quarter in game three. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray had quiet performances in the second game of the series before totally disappearing in game three.
Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and now Mike Conley are running roughshod over the Nuggets hapless defense that has more questions after game three than it did going into it.
Nuggets Defense Has No Answer For Jazz
It was apparent that Denver’s defense was struggling with the Jazz offensive attack when Mitchell went off for a franchise-record 57 point game one performance. But minus the All-Star guard’s heroics, it seemed Denver should be able to slow the Jazz wing scorers in game two without veteran guard Mike Conley. Instead, Jordan Clarkson went off for a career playoff-best 26 points in a runaway victory.
Then, when it seemed the Nuggets perimeter defense couldn’t get any worse, Conley stepped onto the floor after sitting out a week’s worth of games and torched Denver for 27 points on a casual 9-13 shooting and 7-8 from the three-point line.
To be fair to Denver, they tried to adjust to the Jazz attack. After a strong 18 point performance from Joe Ingles in game two, the Nuggets committed to keeping the Australian guard from being a playmaker.
Denver repeatedly switched bigger defenders onto Ingles to prevent him from getting easy looks from three, or open driving lanes off of screens. It worked, Ingles finished with just two points on two shot attempts in 21 minutes, and the team still lost by 37 points. The guard did add an impactful eight assists to his stat line despite the extra attention.
The Nuggets perimeter focused gameplan allowed Gobert to steamroll to a 20 point, 11 rebound first half double-double. The All-Star center easily rolled to the rim for dunks, caught lops when left unattended by help defenders, or waltzed past Jokic for crafty finishes at the hoop en route to a 24 point, 14 rebound night. Gobert was the best player on the floor in the first half, and the Jazz didn’t need him after the break.
Conley Dazzles In Return
It would be easy to say Conley’s performance was due in large part to his hot shooting. And part of it was. But the veteran guard deserves credit for how often he was able to get open against the Nuggets defense with clever spacing that allowed him to find a rhythm.
Conley’s early baskets were mostly wide-open three-point looks, taking advantage of the Nuggets slow-footed defenders. After a 4-4 start the three-point line in the first half, the guard continued to find the bottom of the net on increasingly difficult perimeter shots in the second half.
The Nuggets defense was bad, and Conley made it look worse with his 56 career games of experience, and further complicated any future adjustments the Nuggets can make.
Mitchell finished the night as the Jazz third-leading scorer and needed just 27 minutes and 13 field goal attempts to reach the mark. The Jazz Cerberus of Gobert, Conley, and Mitchell combined for 71 points on 25-41 shooting and played a combined two minutes and 10 seconds after the third quarter.
Jazz Bench Improves
The Jazz bench has been one of the glaring weaknesses for the team through the first two games of the series. Even in Clarkson’s terrific game two performance, Georges Niang, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Tony Bradley struggled to contribute in the second unit.
That changed dramatically in game three Conley replaced Mudiay in the lineup, relaxing the defensive attention on Niang and Bradley.
Niang had a playoff career-high 16 points on 6-9 shooting, including 4-6 from the three-point line. Bradley played just seven minutes but saw the Jazz outscore the Nuggets by 18 points during the stretch.
Rookie Juwan Morgan continues to earn minutes in Snyder’s rotation. The hard-working big man ate up much of Bradley’s reserve minutes and grabbed four rebounds in 22 minutes.
With the two teams having to face off every other day, back to back blowouts, with added depth from Conley, the Jazz starters have seen a significant decrease in game minutes in games two and three.
After a game one overtime outing that saw nearly each Jazz starter total nearly 40 minutes of action, on Gobert was on the floor for more than 30 minutes in game three.
Nuggets Negative Body Language
The Nuggets were noticeably frustrated with their game three performance. Beyond appearing to quit after halftime, several possessions left Nuggets players throwing their arms up at one another for careless mistakes.
After a blown defensive assignment from rookie Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets coach Mike Malone was seen on the bench with his head in his hands.
On another possession, Gobert simply stepped through the defense of Jokic and Murray for an easy dunk at the rim.
Guard Monte Morris threw his hands up after the lack of effort from Nuggets stars defensively.
Midway through the third quarter, the Nuggets had clearly chalked the game up as a loss. Denver’s lack of effort resulted in 17 turnovers, mostly made of lazy passes leading to nine Jazz steals.
With the Nuggets trailing by 28 points with under two minutes left in the third quarter, Jokic threw a flatfooted passed to Morris at the top of the key that was easily intercepted by Mitchell for a breakaway dunk.
After the pass, hung his head while Mitchell showboated on the other end.
The Jazz have only a one-game lead in the series, but nothing about the last two games, including any of the eight quarters of action implies the series is remotely that close. Denver is going to have to find a new rotation, a new effort, and a new resilience to make the series competitive in the upcoming games.
The Jazz and Nuggets face off in game four on Sunday. The game tips-off at 7 pm MT and will be broadcast nationally on TNT and local on AT&T SportsNet.