Near the end of the first half, it looked like the Jazz were well on their way to rolling over the Denver Nuggets and clinching the series. They were up double-digits midway through the second quarter and the crowd was going crazy. Not only that, but Denver’s vaunted offense was stalling.
Then Joey Graham showed up, and the Nuggets were right back in it. Coming off the bench, Graham scored 18 of his 21 points in the second quarter. He gave the Nuggets something they had lacked all series — the toughness required to play from behind. He scored on put-backs, cuts, open mid-range jumpers, and even banged in a three. He scored 18 of his 21 points in the second quarter, and the Nuggets went into halftime trailing by only two points.
Denver kept their energy level up after halftime, getting Deron Williams into foul trouble and holding the lead for much of the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, the Jazz made a run to take back the lead. As that happened, Denver simply melted down. The Nuggets played like a team that misses its coach all series long; that lack of discipline is ultimately what killed them in game six.
With the Jazz up by three points in the fourth, Deron Williams drove on Kenyon Martin and drew a two-shot foul. After the whistle, Martin gave Williams an unnecessary push to pick up a technical foul on top of the original foul. It was all bad news from there for the Nuggets. Utah only had one field goal in the last six minutes of the game, but they were able to hold on because the Nuggets couldn’t stop themselves from fouling. Chauncey Billups picked up another technical before the game was over, and the Jazz shot 15 of their 51 free throws in the last half of the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets didn’t play terribly. But between Carmelo Anthony struggling from the field (6-22), their starting frontcourt combining for nine points, J.R. Smith giving them nothing, and all those fouls, they were simply over-matched by Utah’s unrelenting precision and aggressiveness.
The Jazz get the Lakers in the second round, and there are a lot of interesting matchups in that series. Will Phil Jackson risk putting Fisher on Deron Williams, or will Kobe draw the assignment? Do the Jazz have a defender who can slow down Kobe the way Sefolosha and Durant were (at times) able to in the Thunder series? Will Kirilenko be healthy, and will he end up taking a turn on Kobe? How will the Jazz’s undersized forwards deal with LA’s hulking frontline of Bynum and Gasol? How will the Lakers handle Utah’s eardrum-rattling crowd? Jerry Sloan was able to give the Jazz an advantage in this series by out-coaching interim head coach Adrian Dantley — what will happen when he goes up against Jackson, his old nemesis? Regardless of what the answers to all those questions are, chances are it’s going to be a great series.