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Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets Game Preview: Five things to watch

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Game #5: Jazz (2-2) @ Nuggets (2-2)
Location: Pepsi Center • Denver, CO
Time: 7:00 p.m. (MT)
TV: ROOT Sports • Radio: 1280 AM / 97.5 FM

Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz (2-2) face off against their regional rivals the Denver Nuggets (2-2) tonight. The Jazz will be playing their second game of a back-to-back set, and in a rare case, doing it at a higher elevation than their own home. The Nuggets have had at least a night off between each game, but that will end tonight. They host the Jazz tonight, but then have to fly out west to face the NBA Champs tomorrow night. Are they going to overlook the Jazz, or will they focus their energies tonight? Both teams are missing key players. Utah will be without starting point guard Dante Exum, Denver will be without Jusuf Nurkic and Wilson Chandler -- both are in their normative Top 8 rotation and Nurkic probably would have started this season if he was healthy. But there's still plenty of reasons to watch this game.

Derrick Favors still has the flu, but he's going to have a lot of mile-high help from Rudy Gobert. He always seems to go nuts against the team that drafted him -- and traded him on draft night. It's even more funny because the Nuggets waived Erick Green (who the Jazz traded to Denver) to make room for Kostas Papanikolaou. Denver doesn't have the size that Utah can bring to the table, but they have the energy to make it an exciting game.

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1. Recent Play:

The Utah Jazz lost last night to the Portland Trail Blazers. That was a downer of a game where the team got torched from the perimeter and for whatever reason couldn't get any rebounds. It also slowed down the momentum the team was building after a very successful Eastern Conference road trip. Being 2-2 at this stage is not the worst thing in the world. Being 2-3 after tonight will be, though.

The Denver Nuggets have beaten the Houston Rockets (on the road) and the Los Angeles Lakers (on the road). They lost their only home game so far, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and also lost on the road to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the Trail Blazers, the Nuggets have only played Western conference teams. And they are also treading water. Utah did play the weak East, and maybe they need to find that next gear to handle the West.

Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, and Alec Burks are all playing a lot of minutes for the Jazz, but as a group they have been very poor from outside. The Nuggets are similarly trying to find some sort of rotation with their bigmen Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson, and Joffrey Lauvergne. They are rebounding, and shooting well, but is it for real? There are questions for both fanbases after four games.

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2. History:

The Utah Jazz dominate the Denver Nuggets. The Good guys are 104-75 overall, but sadly split the season series 2-2 with them last season. Even worse, they are not getting it done on the road, with a 34-55 record in the Mile High city. Furthermore, the Nuggets have won the first game of the series, usually in November of December, in six straight years -- most of those games have been blowout losses for the Jazz.

Besides the Gobert / Green dynamic these two teams do have some history. Alec Burks went to school in Colorado, seems to always attack in their gym, and had a season ending injury last season because of Arron Afflalo. Also, Joffrey Lauvergne and Rudy Gobert are both French National team players. Furthermore, there's that Randy Foye guy to contend with as well. And specifically . . .

Yeah. Could be a new Jazz killer, unless Alec Burks steals his shorts again.

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3. Strategy:

The Jazz are on the second night of a back to back, are missing one starter, and another is questionable. It's time for the Nuggets to nugg, and keep running. It's always worked in each of the last six times they've played an early season game in Denver. Emmanuel Mudiay isn't a halfcourt player just yet, but Jameer Nelson definitely is. The penetration allows for easy buckets for their bigs, and man, yeah, they can space the floor. Denver appears to be precisely that same Denver team that it's always been, minus Carmelo Anthony. They do have Danilo Gallinari, and he has the skills to make life hard for Gordon Hayward on both sides of the court.

Of course, Gordon Hayward is doing that to himself already with his slump. The Jazz are going to need to play with some energy tonight, that means crashing the glass. No rebounds, no counter-attack. That's what Quin Synder wants from this team -- activity and strategic running. Otherwise they'll just be forced to slow the tempo of the game way down and grind it out. History tells us that the Jazz have been incapable of doing that in Denver. So. Well. We'll see what happens.

The Nuggets aren't specifically fast right now, playing at the 18th fastest pace, but that's still a lot faster than the Jazz' 30th.

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4. Players:

The fulcrum for this game, honestly, could end up being which pair wins out: Trey Burke and Alec Burks vs. Jameer Nelson and Will Barton/Randy Foye. The two Jazz bench guards average a combined 26.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, and 1.8 spg. The three Nuggets bench guards average a combined 23.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 7.6 apg, and 2.8 spg. Utah has won when their bench has given them something. And they've lost when they had to rely on their bench and received very little. Denver's crew stuffs the statsheet, but the Jazz group are much more efficient in scoring and score more.

I started off looking at this match-up because I'm expecting both teams will have no-shows from 2 of their 5 starters tonight. That's just the way it is.

2015 2016 GM 05 UTA at DEN - Player Stats

Oh yeah, Joffrey Lauvergne is going to start for them (I think) and even he hits threes. We're going to enjoy this game, Jazzfans.

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5. X-Factors:

Woe be us when we have to mention Gordon Hayward as an X-Factor. He's just not reliable right now with his scoring, and his .352 .308 .684 shooting isn't winning any wars. If he plays as well as he is supposed to play then this is a winnable game. If he's not, and the Jazz need to find things -- like from their back-up bigs who have been awful all season long -- it's going to be a long night.

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Prediction: Denver goes for their 7th straight win against the Jazz, in an early season home game.