Nuggets Hone in on Utah as Season Opener Draws Near

If it was football, Monday at the Pepsi Center would be called Installation Day, the practice in which the plan for the next game started to be put in. The Nuggets could still call Monday Installation Day, because this morning’s practice was the first time coaches introduced Utah-specific information to the players.

Getting a handle on Utah won’t be as easy.

The Jazz are a different bunch from the team that won 51 games last season and advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs. Gone from that team is their All-Star, Gordon Hayward, and their starting point guard, George Hill, who now plays for Sacramento. Ricky Rubio is now Utah’s starting point guard, coming in a trade with Minnesota during the summer. They also added a defensive guru in guard Thabo Sefolosha during free agency. Former CU star Alec Burks is also healthy this year after missing half of last season due to ankle surgery.

This is Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s Cliff Notes sketch of what he sees: “We were studying all of their preseason games,” Malone said. “They went undefeated, 5-0. They played two non-NBA teams and played the Lakers and I think Phoenix twice. So, we look at their games. They have Ricky Rubio at the one, (Rodney) Hood at the two, (Joe) Ingles, three; (Derrick) Favors, four; (Rudy) Gobert, five. Off the bench the kid from Louisville (Donovan) Mitchell is playing really well. Alec Burks is healthy and playing well for them. Joe Johnson is just a matchup nightmare.”

Malone said even though Utah is a new-look bunch, the Nuggets’ staff has gotten familiar with what they might see come Wednesday in the season opener.

“We as a staff have a pretty good idea of who they are and what they are trying to do, even though Gordon is gone, George Hill is gone, Trey Lyles is with us,” Malone said. “They still present a bunch of problems. (Jazz coach) Quinn (Snyder) does a great job, and we know defensively they’ll be one of the best defenses in the NBA.”

And maybe the Nuggets will be able to carve out a few more pieces of info from Lyles, who was traded to the Nuggets from Utah on draft night.

“We’ve done that in the past,” Malone said. “We’ll get a guy from a team we’ll ask them about play calls, about personnel, whatever they can offer. Trey is a smart kid. I’m sure he’ll have some pretty good insights to share.”

No matter what, Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler knows there are some inescapable truths when playing a Snyder-coached Jazz team.

“They are going to play hard, regardless,” Chandler said. “They are going to play slow-down basketball, they are going to execute and play real good defense.”

Improved defense. Nuggets coach Michael Malone said there was a lot to like about the work his team put in on the defensive end during the preseason.

“Digging into the numbers the last couple of days, I think our defense has improved,” Malone said. “Our 3-point defense is terrific. We’re scoring 22 points a game off of forced turnovers, whereas last year we were bottom of the league in that category. So, us being a little more aggressive is getting us out and allowing us to score in transition.”

Overall, in five preseason games, the Nuggets allowed 106.2 points and opponents shot 47.4 percent from the field. Opponents were held to just 33.1 percent from the 3-point line. They are forcing 18.6 turnovers per game and, as Malone said, have turned those into 22 points per night.

“Our pick-and-roll defense and our 3-point defense has been really good,” Malone said. “It’s a very small sample size, I realize, but I think our guys have really bought into the defense, especially pick-and-roll and making sure we’re covering the 3-point line. That was a huge problem for us last year, and, again, I think we’re doing a better job with it at the moment.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.

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