Moore: 5 Things to Know Before Betting Nuggets vs. Jazz
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
The NBA Playoffs begin Monday with Nuggets-Jazz Game 1. Here’s a guide to things you need to know before you bet the series price or game by game.
1. Jokic vs. Gobert
It all comes down to Gobert vs. Jokic. The Utah Jazz are built, structurally, around Rudy Gobert. He is considered by many analytics wonks to be the team’s best and most impactful player (though I lean towards Donovan Mitchell because he can actually score on his own).
Gobert, in the Jazz system, is a rightful two-time Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Star. The pick and roll puts him in position to do what he can do offensively (dunk lobs), and the defense funnels driving players to him so he can swat the snot out of them.
The problem that arises when one player is built so centrally into a team structure is that if they run into a matchup that they can’t handle, the structure then collapses.
The Rockets are an obvious example of this, as every attempt to switch Gobert onto Harden or to play to their usual approaches resulted in ruin for the Jazz. The question is whether Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets represent the same kind of problem.
The Nuggets were outscored with Jokic and Gobert both on-court in the regular-season matchups, by 3.5 points per 100 possessions. However, that’s sharply divided between the first half of those matchups where the Jazz were +26.5 in net rating and the second half where Denver was +12.7.
When Jokic committed himself… it got bad for Gobert.
If Gobert doesn’t commit, Jokic has the little fadeaway in deep position:
And if he does commit, Jokic has him with the upfake:
Additionally, the Jokic-Jumal Murray pick and roll creates separate issues for the Jazz.
If the Jazz play drop, the Nuggets have run this so many times that Murray is always going to make this easy pass and Jokic will take the floater off the catch every time:
The Jazz try to switch after the drop here, but instead of committing to try and ISO Rudy Gobert as a lot of guards would, Murray stays patient and Jokic gets the mismatch.
The Jazz try to switch off-ball when Jokic comes off a screen here, but when Gobert goes to try and switch back, Jokic is already presenting the pass fake with a good six inches of height over his defender. So Gobert backs off, which lets Jokic just get the switch he wants anyway:
Jokic has averaged 29 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists vs. the Jazz this season. Gobert has had monster first halves. But ultimately, Gobert needs to win the battle on both ends or Denver will create more and more separation.
2. Neither Team Is Whole
Neither team is whole, nor likely will be. Bojan Bogdanovic was one of two big offseason additions for the Jazz. He brought shooting that boosted Utah to the second-best effective field goal percentage in the league prior to the suspension of play. He’s out with a season-ending injury.
The other addition was Mike Conley, providing a floor general who could play off Donovan Mitchell and make shots. It’s been an up and down season for Conley, with high highs and low lows. Conley also will miss at least the start of the series as he left the bubble to attend the birth of his son.
Meanwhile, Gary Harris and Will Barton, two of Denver’s starters, suffered injuries in scrimmage practices and are out indefinitely. There was some optimism they would return two weeks ago, but instead, the prognosis has worsened, though how is still unclear.
The Jazz offense is reduced without Conley and Bogdanovic, the Nuggets defense is hampered by Harris and Barton’s absence, and their shooting is missed as well.
Reading tea leaves, there is more optimism towards a potential Barton return than a Harris appearance. The problem with that?
With Harris and Millsap on-court, the Nuggets have a 101 defensive rating, which is stellar. Without the two of them? The defense falls to 112 points allowed per 100 possessions, which is wretched, and it has been worse in the bubble.
Meanwhile, the Jazz will surely miss the weaponry, but there’s some good news hidden in the bad. With Royce O’Neal next to Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Joe Ingles, the Jazz have a 115 offensive rating and a 101 defensive rating for a +13.8 net. And the Ingles-Gobert-Mitchell trio has actually been better with Conley off the court than on this season.
The Jazz have Jordan Clarkson to replace some of Bogdanovic’ on-ball scoring and O’Neal and Georges Niang to replace some of the off-ball offense. Overall, the Nuggets are actually more short-handed than Utah is.
3. Scheme vs. Trends for the Overs
The Game 1 total is 215.5, which makes sense. The last seven meetings have gone under that, 4-3. The two teams play at slower pace. Both teams are missing key offensive personnel.
The problem is how the two teams’ schemes interact and where these teams are at now. The Nuggets have the 29th-ranked defense since the All-Star Break. They had the 22nd (last) ranked defense in the restart games.
This season, Utah has not been the defensive juggernaut they have been the last four years. They brought in more offensive personnel at the cost of the defense, which slid to 13th this season.
Utah’s base defensive scheme is drop, with Gobert corralling everything into his fenced area of doom. But as shown above, the Nuggets have counters for that, and more counters to counters the Jazz have.
Switching seems to be something Utah is looking more closely at based on the last matchup but again, as shown above, it comes with its own problems.
Denver, on the other hand, has a base defense that puts two on-ball in pick and rolls. They bring the big to the level of the screen and attack the ball-handler there. It engages Jokic more and lets him use his active hands. It can cause problems for Utah:
Mitchell is 79th percentile scoring vs. two on-ball per Synergy Sports. He’s awesome at it. But he also has the fourth-highest turnover rate for any player with at least 200 such possessions. His jump-passing gets him in trouble:
What’s interesting is that typically, drop coverage messes badly with Utah. It keeps shooter defenders home and takes away the lob to Gobert. But Denver actually has more trouble with it. They struggle with covering the space necessary to contain Gobert:
The Nuggets will throw various looks at the Jazz, but both present limitations, especially with an inexperienced rookie Michael Porter Jr. trying to both cover inside and recover to the corner:
Whichever side you like in the game by game lines, take a look at their team over points prop, because whoever wins is likely to put up a big number.
4. The Michael Porter Jr. Problem
Speaking of Porter Jr., the new Nuggets star was electric in the bubble and cemented his starting spot.
However, his star dimmed somewhat after the return of Jamal Murray.
Murray is the max point guard for Denver. He’s always thought of himself as a star player, and there are nights where he plays like it. One thing he is not is a floor general who works to get everyone involved.
In his minutes in the bubble, he threw 26.5 (60%) of his passes to Jokic, which he should. The offense goes through him; Jokic is effectively the point guard.
Murray threw 5.5 passes (12.5%) to Torrey Craig, and 4.5 (10%) passes per game to Paul Millsap. He threw just three passes to Michael Porter Jr. per game (6.8%). There’s almost no interaction between Murray and MPJ, rendering him effectively just an off-ball corner spot-up decoy.
It’s a waste of his talent, and in any situation where MPJ and Jokic play two-man game, the opponent is in a nightmare between Jokic’s skill and MPJ’s shooting and size at 6 foot 10.
MPJ will start, he needs to play, but he’s not a net positive if he’s relegated to standing in a corner. Pay attention to MPJ’s minutes, shots and what those stretches look like. It’s a sign things are going sideways for Denver if it doesn’t look good.
5. Be Ready to Buy Back on Denver
Denver only led twice at the half in the restart. Throughout the season and in the restart, they were a great third-quarter team.
If Denver goes down in the first quarter, it’s worth looking live at Denver’s live moneyline and seeing if it gets to a number you want, because their pattern of play in second halves is very good.