Nikola Jokic rattled off challenges the Utah Jazz present: disciplined, formidable big man, big-time scorer, meticulous execution of their roles.
Then, the reason above all others the Denver Nuggets center relishes playing them in a first-round series: The games always go down to the wire.
The third-seeded Nuggets went 3-0 against Utah in the regular/restarted season but that hardly reflects just how tight the contests were. Denver won the trio of games over the sixth-seeded Jazz by a combined margin of 11 points, including a 134-132 double-overtime thriller on Aug 8. The series begins Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
“Every game is going to be interesting,” Jokic said.
The niceties have been put on hold. So, sorry for the cold shoulder near the cold tub.
The Nuggets and Jazz were rather cordial inside the bubble, exchanging pleasantries since they trained and dined in close proximity.
“But we told them (the other day) when we saw them in the cold tub, it was the last time we probably say, ‘What up’ to each other,” Nuggets guard Monte Morris said. “It’s business at the end of the day. We have to worry about the Nuggets and they worry about their side. Let the best team win.”
It could hinge on the matchup in the middle — Jokic versus Rudy Gobert.
Jokic is the engine that makes Denver go, a 7-foot center who plays like a point guard. Gobert is the rim protector who’s in the running for his third straight NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.
Gobert certainly has a healthy dose of respect for Jokic’s game.
“When his team needs him to step up at the end of games, he usually does,” Gobert said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Same sentiment for the 7-foot-1 Gobert, who led the league in dunks.
“His teammates are using him really well,” said Jokic, who averaged 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists in 14 playoff games last season. “He’s a really good player.”
The teams are very similar outside of just having All-Star centers.
Both boast game-changing guards — Donovan Mitchell for Utah and Jamal Murray for Denver.
Both also have sublime supporting casts, though the Jazz may be without guard Mike Conley for a bit after he left the bubble to head back to Columbus, Ohio, for the birth of his son. He’s subject to a quarantine upon his return.
“If Mike Conley is not available for Game 1, or whatever it is, then I’m sure other guys will step up,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “If Mike Conley is not available, that means more Donovan Mitchell, who is an all-NBA caliber player.”
The emergence of Michael Porter Jr. since the restart has been a windfall for the injury-plagued Nuggets. Porter averaged 22 points in Florida and was named to the second team, all-bubble squad for the games played at Disney.
“That’s a cool little achievement,” Porter said. “But all the real stuff that I’m focused on starts now and that’s the playoffs.”
This is how close these teams are: The Jazz and Nuggets both averaged 111.3 points and shot around 47% from the field. Utah and Denver each finished 3-5 after the restart. The Nuggets were without starters Will Barton III (knee) and Gary Harris (hip).
The Nuggets are hoping to rely on their playoff experience from a year ago when they beat San Antonio in seven games before losing to Portland in seven.
“It’s like taking an exam a second time. You study a little better,” Morris said. “That’s the page we’re on with everything now. We’re ready to go.”
Utah will try to exploit the Nuggets from deep despite being without top 3-point threat Bojan Bogdanovic, who had wrist surgery in May. The Jazz shot a league-leading 38% from 3-point range.
“Now everybody understands their role, understands how they can fill Bojan’s void on offense,” Mitchell said.
For Malone, the X-factor is Joe Ingles, who averaged nine assists against Denver.
“He’s a very good playmaker,” Malone said.
Torrey Craig will be expected to shadow Mitchell. At least, that’s Mitchell’s presumption.
“I do anticipate them keeping him on me, as they should,” Mitchell said. “Whoever they put on me, just try to find a way to get in the paint and make plays.”
Denver and Utah are meeting for a fifth time in the postseason. The teams also met in 1984, ’85, ’94 and 2010. The Jazz lead 3-1 in the all-time series.