Denver ballooned the lead to 28 points in third quarter, only allowing Utah to chip away enough to disguise the final score as respectable.
It was a thorough dismantling of Utah, something Jazz fans have grown accustomed to their team handing the opposition this season. While the loss stings, its worth looking deeper into the contest to see what insights should adjust our perspective.
As the Denver Nuggets pushed the lead to 25 points at the half, having hit 15-17 shots from the perimeter, most fans likely felt there were no silver linings in the slightest. Looking at the data, maybe there are.
Denver’s 3P Shooting
Denver ended the night shooting 64.3% from 3, the highest percentage of any team this season. It was also the best 3P shooting night the Nuggets have had in the last five seasons. What Denver did is extremely rare.
Furthermore, the Jazz forced them to taking fewer catch and shoot 3’s at just 17% of all FGA (normally 28%) and they forced more pullup 3’s at 14% of all FGA (normally 9%).
Obviously, forcing them into worse shots didn’t affect their efficiency much, but it is generally a great strategy.
Utah’s Starting Backcourt
Utah has been blessed with an incredibly stable, starting backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, a backcourt that shoots the ball well and sets their teammates up well. Unfortunately, last night wasn’t their best outing.
Mitchell and Conley combined for just 25 points. Since Mike has come to Utah, there have only been 9 games where they both played and combined for fewer than 28 points. Utah won just 3 of those games (33% win rate).
They combined for a 47 true shooting percentage (helped immensely by their 11-11 FTs). Since Mike came to Utah, there have been 19 games were both played and had a 50% TS or less. Jazz won just 8 of those games (42% win rate).
While it’s not necessarily a silver lining to hear that the Nuggets kind of made history and Utah had one of their worst backcourt nights since the Conley trade, the Jazz will be hard pressed to face another team that shoots 64% from 3 despite poor looks AND where the Utah backcourt combines for <28 points on sub-50% TS.
It was bad enough that Denver had an otherworldly evening of shooting. What made it worse, and ultimately contributed to the blowout, was another dominate night in generating and scoring on extra possessions.
During yesterday’s game, the Utah Jazz had a -4 possession swing and a -11 points swing. That means that Denver swung an additional 4 possessions their way, scoring 11 more points than Utah did on such.
Check out where both DEN-UTA matchups come out in “Poss/Points Swing” compared to all Jazz matchups this year:
As you can see, Denver has put Utah in the bottom, left quadrant each game of the season (negative in possessions, negative in points). The only way to combat the bottom, left quadrant is superior shooting and getting to the free throw line. Jazz did the latter but couldn’t muster the former.
Unfortunately, generating extra possessions and points is nothing new for Denver this season.
The 2020-21 Denver Nuggets are generating the 3rd best "Possession Swing" since 2017-18:— Adam Bushman (@adam_bushman) January 29, 2021
Rest of top 5:
#1 +5.5, OKC in 2018-19
#2 +5.0, OKC in 2017-18
#4 +3.5, ORL in 2020-21
#5 +3.2, SAS in 2020-21
#5 +3.2, MIN in 2017-18#NBATwitter
The 2020-21 Denver Nuggets are generating the best "Points Swing" since 2017-18:— Adam Bushman (@adam_bushman) January 29, 2021
Rest of top 5:
+6.9, LAC in 2020-21
+6.7, WAS in 2020-21
+6.6, OKC in 2017-18
+6.2, OKC in 2018-19#NBATwitter
The Utah Jazz have made some strides this year in “Poss/Points Swing”, but in matchups with the Denver Nuggets, this has to of increased focus. On nights when the shot isn’t falling as we’re used to or the opponent is playing out of their mind, generating extra opportunities to score will give you a shot.
Nikola Jokic exploded against the Jazz on Sunday, having one of those “out of their mind” games. He put up 47 points on 26 shots, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing 5 assists.
The ugly truth is that Denver has an undisputed top 10 player on their team in Jokic. Not only is he one of the elite offensive players in the game, he’s much improved in his defensive impact.
Utah has a host of top 50 players and Rudy who, thanks to his incredible defense, is constantly pushing his way into discussions revolving around top 10 impact. But we don’t have an undisputed top 10 player.
Worse still, Jokic has discovered the Rudy Gobert cheat code.
Refer to the below graphic for Nikola Jokic career numbers vs the Utah Jazz by season (data thanks to NBA.com):
There are four charts: points per game (top, left), true shooting % (top, right), potential assists per game (bottom, left), and rebounds per game (bottom, right).
You can see the green section of each chart represents Jokic’s first two seasons in the NBA where he had a reduced role and playing time. Following that appears the red section where Jokic increased his role but Rudy Gobert had great success in their matchups. Finally, the yellow section is the stretch from last season, through their 7-game series in the playoffs, and the two games thus far in 2020-21.
Nearly every data point is trending up in the yellow section from the red. Jokic has figured out how to score efficiently, setup teammates, and rebound against the Jazz and Rudy Gobert.
While the Utah Jazz win streak ended at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, they still have the highest point differential in the league, per CleaningTheGlass.com, at +10.8. Per FiveThirtyEight.com, the Utah Jazz are favored in their next 9 matchups.
By most every metric available, the Jazz are showing to be an elite team. The Denver game doesn’t change that.
What the Denver game does tell us is that the Nuggets had an absurdly good shooting night, one that is extremely unlikely to repeat. On the other hand, the Nuggets possess immense confidence playing against Utah, which may contributing to these seemingly improbable outings.
We know the Jazz starting backcourt isn’t likely to be as poor as they were against the Nuggets. As a pair, they’ve been excellent most the season. On the other hand, Donovan Mitchell continues his see-saw stretches of brilliance and disappointment.
We know the Jazz have to be extra focused on generating extra possessions and points off of such to fight Denver. We know that Nikola Jokic has Utah’s number and we don’t have a player of his caliber.
Fortunately, most of these realizations affect matchups with Denver and may not apply to the remaining 28 teams in the league. However, they do suggest the Jazz have flaws, flaws that define a high ceiling for sure, but is it high enough?