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Jazz Nuggets rivalry persists despite recent failures

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These two teams reached a crescendo over twenty seasons ago, and since then . . .

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One of the biggest moments in my life as a fan was when my head exploded when on May 17th, 1994. That's when my Utah Jazz, despite just barely missing a sweep by losing Game 4 by 1 point, ended up losing Game 5 of the second round of the playoffs -- at home -- to the Denver Nuggets. The series turned then, and despite all the positive progress made by the team since I became a fan, the worries started to creep in again. Utah had three first round exists in the last few seasons which did not completely go away after making the Western Conference Finals two years earlier. I was worried about the team, but more than that, I was upset and angry at losing to the Denver Nuggets. That Game Five was a turning point for the series, and a huge growing up point for our players and fans and owners alike. Most of us know what I'm talking about . . . but for those still in the dark, you're going to have to wait a little more before I address it. We need to go back, before we go forwards.

The Denver Nuggets were one of the teams that graduated from the ABA to the NBA. While they were still called the Denver Rockets back in 1967 they were powered by Spencer Haywood. Haywood was a player who years later would spend a season playing for the New Orleans Jazz. The Jazz didn't get started in the ABA, but were formed in 1974, the same year the Rockets became the Nuggets. Two seasons went by before these two franchises were in the same league, the ABA didn't dismantle until 1976. And three seasons went by before these two franchises on the other side of the country were right in each others' back year, as the New Orleans Jazz didn't move to Utah until 1979.

While Denver was an up and down team that had a history of winning, Utah -- who had previously only had the ABA Utah Stars -- was a perennial cellar dweller. However, both teams shared colorful and larger than life coaches like Alex Hannum, Elgin Baylor, Larry Brown, Tom Nissalke, Donny Walsh, Frank Layden, and Doug Moe. Both teams weren't as financially capable as the larger markets owned by richer people, so they would have to resort to 'renting' quality young players, or overpaying for stars past their prime. The smaller market sting was one of the first shared challenges for both franchises.

As a guy born in the 1970s I didn't really get into professional sports that much until the 1980s (I was too busy learning how to spell and do division and stuff like that than to claim being a "life long NBA fan" like some others.) The 80s were a period of relative stability for both clubs, the Jazz finally moved from being a team that would be in the 20s and 30s for wins in a season to one that would be winning 40 and 50 games a season. This was not the same for the Nuggets, who went from being a team capable of winning 60 games in a season back in the ABA to being one that would finish the 1980s decade being no better or worse than the Jazz in that 40 to 50 win range.

Dan Issel, Kiki Vandeweghe, Calvin Natt, Alex English, Fat Lever, Adrian Dantley, Rickey Green, and of course John Stockton and Karl Malone were some of the biggest names in the mountains. Basketball was alive and well, and these two teams seemed to be in a near constant struggle for dominance. They shared a mountain, but the region was not big enough for the both of them.

Our brother site Denver Stiffs wrote about which team they felt were the biggest rivals of their franchise (Andrew Feinstein, Denver Stiffs, 2012). Andrew writes:

A good argument can be made that the Jazz are the Nuggets' biggest rival. First, they're the only two teams located in the Rocky Mountains. Second, they have played each other 167 times (tied for second most of any Nugget opponent with the Indiana Pacers, which includes ABA games). And third, they've competed in four playoff series - third most for any Nugget opponent behind the Lakers, with two going the distance (in 1984 Utah won 3-2 in the first round and in 1994 Utah won 4-3 in the second round after being up 3-0 and ruining the 8th-seeded Nuggets amazing Cinderella playoff run). They've also had some epic games, like when Rodney Rogers canned three three-pointers in nine seconds against the Jazz in 1994 (which was followed by Jeff Malone hitting a game-winning jumper with 12 seconds left) or when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf lit up the Jazz for 51 points in 1995.

The problem, unfortunately, is that the Nuggets and Jazz have rarely been good at the same time. Of those 167 games played, the Jazz have won 99 of them (almost 60%!). Among those four playoff series (1984, 1985, 1994 and 2010), the Jazz won three and none were past the second round. When Karl Malone and John Stockton were dominating the Western Conference for Utah in the 1990s, the Nuggets were a laughingstock (sans 1994). And during the recent Nuggets run of nine-straight playoff appearances, the Jazz have missed the post-season four times and when they've made the playoffs, they've been - like the Nuggets - among the lower four playoff seeds.

Simply put, to have competed against your "rival" in the playoffs just four times in 35-plus years is pretty weak.

And their readers voted for the Jazz as the #1 rival for obvious reasons:

2014 2015 - Utah Jazz Denver Nuggets Rivalry - Denver Stiffs Poll 2012

But the sad thing is that these two teams have rarely been good at the same time. You could argue that they were back in the mid 2000s, but we're not quite there yet. These two teams WOULD be good in the mid 90s. But we're not there just yet either.

The 1990s started with the Nuggets moving from Doug Moe to Paul Westhead. And Westhead had the Nuggets win 44 games, which isn't bad -- except that was for two full 82 game seasons worth of work. Former player Dan Issel became the head coach and while they didn't climb out of the lotto, they definitely reloaded. They picked up Chris Jackson (now Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) #3 in 1990, Dikembe Mutombo #4 in 1991, Mark Macon #8 in 1991, LaPhonso Ellis #5 in 1992, Bryant Stith #13 in 1992, and Rodney Rogers #9 in 1993. The Nuggets traded a 1993 2nd rounder to the Portland Trail Blazers for Robert Pack. The Nuggets traded Anthony Cook, Todd Lichti, and a 1994 2nd rounder to the Orlando Magic for former #10 pick of the 1991 draft Brian Williams (who would change his name to Bison Dele). And they signed Reggie Williams as a free agent in 1991.

These names should be familiar to some Jazz fans. I remember rooting for Chris Jackson back when he was at LSU. I remember being in awe of Dikembe Mutombo at Georgetown. Mark Macon really surprised me with his performance in March Madness the year he was drafted. These were players that I, for the most part, had seen play on TV before and cheered for. After Game 5 these were players I would swear at, while sitting on the floor of my basement watching the playoffs.

Utah wasn't in a state of flux and rapid rebuild. They were on a steady and significant climb from being a team everyone could beat to being a team no one wanted to play against on their home court. Mark Eaton was racking up Defensive Player of the year awards, Karl Malone was a 30-10 machine, and John Stockton was rivaling players like Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas in the boxscore . . . and later on the record books. The Jazz were a team that perhaps overachieved the year I started following them by taking the showtime Los Angeles Lakers to 7 games in the second round of the playoffs. After that season though, the team lost in the first round of the playoffs three of the next five seasons.

Denver was trying to get back to the playoffs, and return to some of their former ABA glory. Utah was never a strong playoff team, yes they at this point had made the playoffs for a decade straight -- but the franchise was known for tapping out in the second round in the seasons where they actually made it out of the first. The Nuggets were playing in the shadow of their history, the Jazz were trying to make their own franchise history still.

And really, the ink was not yet dry on the first playoff forays for the Jazz -- who finally actually qualified for the playoffs in the 1983-1984 season. There they famously defeated the Denver Nuggets 3-2 in the first round that year in the whole "Jazz don't have heart" / "Jazz have heart" legend. A decade later these two teams were facing off in the playoffs again.

In the regular season the Jazz won 53 games, which was good enough for 5th seed. The Nuggets, with this young lotto player filled roster, won 42, and clinched the 8th seed. The only way they would face each other is if both teams upset the the #4 and #1 seeds in the West. For the Jazz this was easy as they beat the San Antonio Spurs 3-1, I had no doubt this would happen because they had beat the Spurs 5-0 in the regular season and had their number. The Nuggets would have to dispatch the defensively out of this world Seattle Supersonics. They had played four times during the regular season, and the young Nuggets got a 2-2 split. Sadly for them, they didn't even come close to winning a game in Seattle. And worse still, the Sonics had home court. So while the 5 game playoff series format for the 1st round back then did give a little more edge to chaos, the deciding game -- if it ever got there -- would be playing in a place where the Nuggets haven't seen any success in. No one expected the 63-19 Sonics to fall in the first round to a team that had 21 fewer regular season wins than them. But as we all know, that's precisely what happened.

So what this set up was the #5 seed up against the #8 seed. A Jazz team trying to force their name in the playoffs, two seasons from first making the Conference Finals and getting lit up -- and a Nuggets team that stunned the world and was ready to make a name for themselves despite being so young.

Being from the same Midwest division these two clubs played each other five times in the regular season -- with the Jazz clubbing them 4-1. Utah even took 2 of 3 games in the Mile High city. While the first round could give way to a lucky team that was hot at the right moment, the second round was a 7 game series. And the best team would win. Period.

And that's how it looked, with the Jazz winning Game 1100-91, and Game 2 104-94. The Nuggets were in the games, but the Jazz felt to Denver up 2-0. Game 3 had the Utah Jazz win 111-109 in Overtime. A 0-3 whole was nearly impossible to come back from. But the Nuggets had just done the impossible in the last round they just played. Game 4 had the Nuggets squeak by with a 83-82 victory -- with the Jazz going back to Utah up 3-1. Being down 1 to 3 was very bad, but infinitely better than being down 0 to 3. The young Nuggets had hope now, something they did have weeks ago after the Sonics were up 2-0.

The Game 4 loss didn't just give the Nuggets hope, but put questions in the mind of the Jazz fans. Karl Malone left Denver having put up a 26 / 13 / 6 / 3 / 1 game, and then a 20 / 9 / 3 / 1 / 1 game. Almost the same, but not nearly as dominant -- especially when you look at his shooting. Karl shot 11/25 in Game three. It was only 45.8%, which isn't what we Jazz fans expect. But it was much better than the 6/20 shooting night he had in Game four, only 30.0%.

He would fix all of that in Game 5, right, and win the game? Not exactly. The Mailman would finish with 22 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal -- but shot 8/18 in the game, only 44.4%. He missed 6 free throws, and at one point -- the actual breaking point -- everything went wrong for the Jazz players, the franchise, and their most famous fan, team owner Larry H. Miller.

The Deseret News' Brad Rock writes:

The Jazz hadn't played well in the first half, and Miller was on a tear. As halftime neared, he had taken his customary walk to the Jazz bench and was steaming. He called for Jerry Sloan to yank Karl Malone from the game for lack of effort.

Once in the locker room, Miller was still fuming and stories said John Stockton told him to stay out. Instead, Miller went to the training room and, according to some published reports, tore off a cabinet door. But that was only the beginning. As he walked out to the court, there stood four Nuggets fans near the baseline: Al Lieberman, Bob Tapper, Paula Browne and Babich. Browne, on a business trip from Seattle, was a stranger to the others and had just bought a ticket to pass the evening.

As Miller later told the story, he was chest-bumped and shoved by someone from Babich's group, so he reacted. As Tapper told it on Thursday, they were "being exuberant," encouraging Denver players as they warmed up at halftime. As Babich tells it, "we were just having supportive words with our team, telling the Nuggets they had a great half and to keep playing tough defense, and when Larry Miller came out, he heard that and took exception."

In any event, this much is documented: Miller went after them, fists doubled. Fortuitously for the news media, it happened in front of the photo lanes, which resulted in the aforementioned shots.

...

Babich said until after the incident, none of them knew Miller owned the Jazz.

"I just thought it was some agitated guy," said Babich.

A few days later, Miller held a press conference to apologize. Stories said Babich wanted to bring criminal action against Miller, but he says that was never the case.

- Brad Rock, Deseret News, 2010

The TL;DR version of this is that the Jazz were dropping a game to the Nuggets at home, the top player on the team was having another bad shooting night, and the owner of the team ended up fighting with Nuggets fans in the stands. And everyone saw it. You can't imagine how crazy a story like this would be if Mavs owner Mark Cuban fought some Spurs fans in the stands today, right? Cell phone videos, vines, and so forth?

After I wrote an article for this site on the relationship between the Jazz and current LHM Group of companies CEO Greg Miller, Larry's eldest son, he offered me a chance to talk to him over the phone for over an hour. He did tell me his 1st person experience with that whole event, and while I will not betray his trust I will point out that he was cognizant of the media presence. In fact in the most famous photo of this event you see him holding his father back and apparently telling him something. I do know what he said to his father, and it just underscores how crazy that game was.

The Jazz would eventually lose this game after being down 39-38 at halftime. The Jazz took the lead going into the fourth quarter, but the Nuggets stormed back and tied the game as 48 minutes decided nothing. The first overtime resolved nothing either. The second overtime had the young Nuggets finally prevailing, beating the Jazz 15-7 in the final frame.

Denver had no chance to beat Seattle, but gave themselves a 50/50 chance after tying the series 2-2 in the first round. Similarly, Denver also had no change to beat Utah, but if they could tie the series they would also have a 50/50 chance to go to the Western Conference Finals. Obviously, yes, they did win game 6 in Denver. Karl Malone had 31 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks -- and the team still lost. His 54.5% shooting was a statement, but the team still lost. The Nuggets were getting stronger, as the Jazz seemed to be looking at yet another upsetting playoff sojourn.

Of course, the Jazz would end up prevailing, and then losing to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. The aftermath of this near disaster -- well, Game 5 can't be classified as anything else -- was that the Jazz would continue to rise as a franchise, and make the Western Conference Finals five times in seven years. The team would even play in two NBA Finals during their peak . . . and after Stockton and Malone retired the team continued to build around point guards and power forwards during the Jerry Sloan era.

What happened to the Denver Nuggets? The Nuggets went 41-41 the next year, winning one fewer game than the season before. And they got bounced in the fist round of the playoffs in a 3 game sweep by the San Antonio Spurs. They wouldn't make the playoffs again until 2004, a decade after the UTA/JAZZ seven game series.

The Nuggets 8 year playoff drought was much longer than the Jazz' 3 years in the playoffs . . . but by the mid 2000s both teams were finally back in the playoffs at the same time. Jerry Sloan was still the Jazz coach, and because everything is connected, the Sonics old coach, George Karl, was now the head coach of the Nuggets.

Now the Nuggets were a team with Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, Nene Hilario, J.R. Smith, and some combination of Andre Miller / Allen Iverson / Chauncey Billups . Denver continued to shuffle the deck, but you could argue that they are now where the Jazz were in the mid 1980s -- as they were consistently a playoff team, but one that always lost in the first round. There was one year where they broke through to the Western Conference Finals (2008-2009 season), something the team had done since 1982-83. Which, if you've been following along, was the season BEFORE the Jazz and Nuggets first met in the playoffs, and the Jazz won that "Jazz have heart" series.

So after the Nuggets went to the Western Conference Finals guess what happened the next season? They faced the Jazz and lost in the first round to the Jazz again.

We can now argue that there is circumstantial evidence that links the histories of these two clubs to be more than just geography based.

So what was the aftermath for these two mid-2000 era Jazz and Nuggets teams? The Denver Nuggets traded their star player Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks; and the Utah Jazz traded their star player Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets (later Brooklyn Nets). The two teams were back to the drawing board, but both in denial about it.

Denver now had the talented front office, and older players trying to make a name for themselves; while the Jazz still retained some level of franchise stability, and were banking on future picks from consecutive NBA drafts. The Nuggets did not hold onto their great coach and general manager, and remain a team in trouble today; while the Jazz failures are a product of holding on too long to a bad coach and ended up alienating some of these younger players who looked to make a 1994 Nuggets style impact (had the Jazz actually committed to a rebuild when they should have).

Today the Nuggets and Jazz are both lottery teams, once again. Their all-time record is 102-74 in favor of the Jazz; and Utah has the dominating lead in the playoffs as well. In Denver the Jazz have a 33-54 record. If they win tonight it's not going to make up for losing in overtime in Game 4 in Denver, but it will mean that this Jazz team is once again making the slow climb back up to being a team that can make the playoffs.

The Nuggets, if they lose tonight, will be 2.5 games behind the Jazz in the playoff standings in the West -- or in lotto terms, 2.5 games ahead.

It's sad to see these two teams that were on a 1990s collision course be so far out of contender status that this game isn't as important as it should be. The Nuggets were young and up and coming, but only made the playoffs twice with Mutombo. The Jazz continued to get better, but have ended up right back where they started in the 20 to 30 win range. This series is a series of circles.

For the record, back then Karl Malone (27/12/3/2/1, 48 fg%) had a really great series. Jeff Hornacek (17/2/5/2) and John Stockton (16/4/10/2) also helped the team win as many games as they needed to advance. Guys like Tyrone Corbin, Felton Spencer, Tom Chambers, and David Benoit were not quite good enough to help the team pick up the slack if Karl was faltering. The Nuggets had a much more balanced attack. Dikembe Mutombo did had 14/12/1/1/6 in the series, but Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Reggie Williams, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Robert Pack, and Bison Dele all averaged double figures (rounding up for Dele who is at 9.6) in points, and their egalitarian form of basketball really gave the Jazz fits.

Tonight the Jazz and Nuggets get back to their rivalry -- even if the glory is so far back in the rear view mirror now. Right now the Jazz still have a big three with Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert (a Nuggets draft pick) -- but depth continues to be an issue. This Nuggets team with Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried and crew all do a little of everything. Even if these two teams aren't playing for a chance to make the Western Conference Finals, this seems like a case of twisted history repeating itself.

There are subtle remixes here and there, but what I really believe is that these two franchises will always be linked. And right now, they are both trying to claw back to where they once used to be.