The first game of the Utah-Denver series was a clash of styles. The Jazz used flex sets in the half-court to get points, while the Nuggets were able to prevail by utilizing organized chaos. On Monday night, the Jazz tried to be more aggressive offensively. With no Okur or Kirilenko, the Jazz were forced to push the ball and look for early offense. Against Denver’s iffy defense, the strategy worked beautifully.
Deron Williams was an absolute monster for the Jazz. He finished with 33 points and 14 assists, and hurt the Nuggets from every spot on the floor. When he put the ball on the floor, he got to the hoop or drew the foul, going to the line a total of 18 times. When the Nuggets gave him space, Williams stepped back and stroked the outside shot. Williams was the difference in the game on Monday night.
Boozer and Milsap also had plenty of success against Denver, scoring a combined 38 points on only 25 attempts from the field. The Jazz looked for them early in the clock, and were often able to set them up with home-run passes for layups or free throws before the Denver defense was able to react. When the Nuggets did get between Boozer and the basket, he was able to turn around and drain his patented shoulder-mounted fadeaway. They both needed to step up with Kirilenko and Okur out, and that’s exactly what they did.
Both teams looked to score early in the clock, either by driving to the rim, finding their bigs down low, or firing the first open shot they could find. Of the 215 points scored in this contest, 103 came from behind the arc or from the free-throw line. Both teams were aggressive taking the ball to the hole, and were more than happy to take a quick three when it was available to them. Early in the game, Denver actually looked to slow the action down to exploit Fesenko (who did look out of place), but later on they went right back to playing up-tempo and taking the first shot available. What resulted was a crazy game with lead changes, fast-breaking, and lots and lots of free throws.
The Nuggets’ reliance on guard play may have hurt them in this game. The Nuggets’ bigs were effective all game; Nene, K-Mart, Birdman, and Petro combined to go 17-24 from the field while Anthony, Billups, Smith, and Afflalo combined to go 18-51. Billups and Anthony were able to get to the line, but the Jazz were able to hide their own lack of bigs by exploiting Denver’s over-reliance on their ball-handlers to create points.
Denver’s soft interior defense ended up costing them the game. The only field goal Utah made from outside the paint in the fourth quarter was the go-ahead three by Kyle Korver; everything else was a shot inside the paint or a free throw. Deron Williams cut the lead to one with an unforgivably easy basket off a UCLA cut with 2:32 remaining.
After Chauncey Billups missed a three, Kyle Korver hit his first three of the night to put the Jazz up two with 1:28 to play. After Chauncey Billups split (!) a pair of key free throws, the Nuggets were able to deny Deron Williams the ball and bait Kyle Korver into a drive that led to a charge. Korver was able to acquit himself on the very next possession, drawing a key charge of his own on Carmelo Anthony to put Denver in desperation mode. Utah made its free throws, Chauncey Billups missed both of his three-point heaves, and Utah was able to steal one in Denver.
On Monday night, Utah decided to change up their tactics and embrace Denver’s philosophy of organized chaos. The difference in the game ended up being that Utah remembered the part about organization. Denver has the firepower to beat any team in the West, but they’ll need to be more disciplined at both ends of the floor if they want to make any kind of a playoff run.