Should Jazz Celebrate Or Rue Nuggets Conference Finals Appearance?
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Denver Nuggets became the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit twice in a single playoff run. In fact, in the long history of NBA, teams down 3-1, there had only been 11 instances of teams overcoming the steep odds until Denver did it twice in back to back series. Now, the Nuggets are headed to the conference finals.
The Nuggets defeated the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the playoffs after the Jazz won games two, three, and four. The Nuggets defeated the Los Angeles Clippers after the heavily favored Clippers squad won games one, three, and four.
Now, the Nuggets are headed to face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, while the Jazz and Clippers enter the offseason licking the wounds from series lost after having odds tilted heavily in their favor.
What Does The Nuggets Win Mean For The Jazz?
The Nuggets win brings complicated emotions for the Jazz, both of promise and of opportunities forever lost.
First, the Jazz have to feel frustrated that had any number of plays over a seven-game series bounced in their favor, they could have found themselves advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in more than a decade.
The Jazz held a late lead over the Nuggets before a Donovan Mitchell eight-second violation in game one turned into a Denver three-pointer. The game ended up going to overtime where the Jazz ultimately fell 135-125.
After winning games two through four, the Jazz again found themselves with several opportunities to close out the series in games five, six, and seven. In game five, the Jazz owned a 15 point lead in the third quarter before a furious Jamal Murray forced a game six.
The Jazz again led game six by double-digits before Murray’s brilliance resulted in a game seven. In game seven, after a slow first half, the Jazz had a dominant second half that erased a Nuggets 19 point lead. Mitchel and Rudy Gobert gave the Jazz a three-point lead with eight minutes left in the game, but again were unable to close out the Nuggets.
On a wild final play, Mike Conley missed a running three-point shot that rimmed out, costing the Jazz a chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
In retrospect, with the Clippers clear imperfections as a roster in round two, the Jazz have to recognize they let a prime opportunity to advance in the playoffs slip away.
Optimism From Nuggets Conference Finals
While undoubtedly the Jazz recognize that they let a prime opportunity slip away, there is cause for optimism in the opening round loss.
Atop the list is how close the Jazz were to defeating a team that has now reached the conference finals. The Jazz were at times either seconds or inches away from beating a team that will finish with at worst, the second deepest run of any Western Conference playoff team. With that in mind, the Jazz should recognize that the West is perhaps more wide open than they expected heading into the postseason.
To add further optimism, the Jazz nearly beat the Nuggets despite having their second-best offensive player in Bojan Bogdanovic. The Croatian sharpshooter opted to have surgery during the suspended stretch of the season which ended the forward’s season. Had Bogdanovic been available, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine the Jazz having another gear they were unable to reach in the postseason to push them over the edge.
Perhaps a larger trend to examine, and one that may have the biggest impact on the league as a whole is the fact that a team like the Nuggets was able to advance to the conference finals in the first place.
Denver is a small market team, in a cold-weather city, built mostly with homegrown stars. For the Jazz, who come from a similarly sized market, with nearly identical weather, and a roster built around two players the team acquired on draft night and developed over the last several seasons, the Nuggets success is a welcome roadmap for a team on a similar destination.
Over the last decade-plus in the NBA, the league was dominated by teams with three or more All-Star level players teaming together to chase a championship. From the Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett led Boston Celtics, to the James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh led Miami Heat, to the Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant led Golden State Warriors, super teams dominated the NBA.
Now, due to changes in the collective bargaining agreement, and a rebalancing of league salaries, having three max contracts on one roster with adequate depth to win a championship is proving more difficult. That may be opening opportunities for teams like the Jazz and Nuggets to advance further in the playoffs, rather than getting left out of the chase by star players opting to team together in more luxurious cities.
Difficulty Drawing Conclusions From the Bubble
While the Jazz are still trying to come to terms with their blown opportunity, and likely finding cause for optimism in the Nuggets run, there is one underlying question that must be asked when attempting to draw conclusions from the Nuggets.
Can any of these results be trusted?
Unquestionably the Nuggets have proven to be a resilient team and a matchup nightmare for teams trying to defend center Nikola Jokic. But is that same conclusion drawn if these playoff games were being played on one another’s home floors rather than in a neutral site?
Would the Jazz have closed out the opening-round series in game six in front of a sold-out VivintArena? Would the Jazz have even forced a game seven by winning games two and five had they been playing in front of an equally ruckus Nuggets crowd in Denver?
Likewise, would the Nuggets have won games two and seven on the road in Los Angeles with the Clippers home crowd helping carry the shaky roster through its tougher moments?
That leaves the Jazz with the difficult decision of guessing what can be accurately drawn from the last two months of data, and what will remain unknown.
“Our job is to study that understand that, seeing what’s sustainable, see what seems to be an outlier,” Jazz vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey said. “And then make a few decisions around where the game is moving towards, and how we fit inside of that offensively.”
Ultimately, the Jazz should recognize that they a golden opportunity to advance deep into the Western Conference playoffs, and understand that urgency and opportunism can result in postseason success. At the same time, the Jazz should see the Nuggets success a cause for optimism as they continue their push into next season realizing they may be closer to a conference finals appearance than they though after another first-round playoff exit.
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