#5 Utah Jazz
(53-29, 2nd place in Northwest Division)
#4 Denver Nuggets
(53-29, 1st place in Northwest Division)
How They Got Here: Thanks to one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA, the Jazz made a real case to get up as high as the #2 seed in the Western Conference. However, an untimely injury to F Carlos Boozer really set the team back against Phoenix in the final game of the season. A loss in that one dropped Utah to the #5 seed and sent it on the road for the first round of the postseason.
Player To Watch: It goes without saying, but G Deron Williams is one of the best point guards in the NBA. He averages a double-double per night, picking up 18.7 points and 10.5 assists per game, and he takes great care of the basketball. Especially if Boozer’s oblique injury proves to keep him out of the any chunk of the playoffs, Williams is going to have to be the top distributor and point scorer on this team.
X-Factor: F Paul Millsap is a favorite of HC Jerry Sloan because of his toughness in the paint. He did a lot of dirty work this year, blocking 96 shots, making 64 steals, and averaging 6.9 rebounds per game. Millsap shows up to work every single night, and though his scoring average might not quite be there (11.6 PPG), he’s still going to be a huge asset to this team in the postseason.
Key To Victory: Holding serve at home is going to be paramount for the Jazz this entire postseason. They can’t afford even one slip up at Energy Solutions Arena in order to make it through to the next round, especially considering the fact that Denver went 34-7 at home this year. Winning once is going to be hard enough away from home, let alone twice.
How They Got Here: The Nuggets got here by trying to run every team that it played off the court (except Phoenix). Denver averaged 106.5 points per game, the third best mark in the NBA, and it did so by taking the third most shots of any team in the NBA. Defense was optional for a good chunk of the season, but having a tandem of players that is combining to score 47.7 points per game really made a big difference.
Player To Watch: Any time you average 28.2 points per game, you’re doing something special, and that’s what F Carmelo Anthony did this year. The Nuggets’ faithful would’ve liked to see the Syracuse star play in more than 69 games this season, but the team fought hard when he was sidelined. Still, on the court, Anthony is one of the best pure scorers in this league.
X-Factor: When you look up the definition of a sharpshooter in the dictionary, you’ll see G Arron Afflalo’s face. Afflalo, a UCLA product, shot a whopping 43.4 percent from beyond the arc this year. He’s going to be expected to come off the bench and provide a spark to the Nuggets when instant offense is needed and should be watched closely as this series progresses.
Key To Victory: Denver really needs to return to its offensive roots that it lost after losing HC George Karl from the sidelines as he continues to battle cancer. The Nuggets scored almost ten points per game less in their final ten games of the year than they did for the rest of the regular season. That won’t cut it in the quest to eliminate the Jazz.
The Final Word: If Boozer was healthy, we may think differently of this series, but the bottom line here is that the Nuggets are just going to keep winning at home. If they steal a game in Utah, great. If not, home court advantage should push it through the playoffs. We’ll call for this series to be over in five games, but it’ll be significantly closer than the 4-1 final score line will suggest.
Nuggets in 5