Nuggets-Jazz: notes from practice

SALT LAKE CITY -- A few themes that emerged Saturday as the Jazz and Nuggets practiced for Game 4:

System vs. Soloists

The Jazz play a very programmatic brand of basketball. "We run a great system that Coach Sloan and Coach Johnson put in…uhhh…30 years ago?" Carlos Boozer said. That date is debatable (there were cave drawings of "auto" sets dating back to the 7th century found in caves near Zion National Park), but it's indisputable that the Jazz have taken a 2-1 series lead by applying their system against a team of superior, but less efficient, athletes. "[The Nuggets] run plays, but most of their stuff is one-on-one isolations," Deron Williams said. "They only had 12 assists, so there’s not much ball movement going on." For the Jazz, necessity is the mother of invention. Denver would like to turn this series into a YMCA-style romp that would maximize their strengths. "They have a great team," Williams said. "Talent-wise, there aren’t many teams better. But what I think we have is a bunch of guys who have bought into a system, who understand what we have to do to win. We’re not a one-on-one team. We go one-on-one every now and then, but for the most part, we’re a team that relies on our passing and our system and playing defense.”

Nuggets acting head coach Adrian Dantley readily acknowledged that the Nuggets' DNA renders them a one-on-one team not suited to playing in a more structured offense. "Coach Karl always said we can't play that type of system," Dantley said. "We're more random basketball." For Chauncey Billups, the fact that the Nuggets play a lot of one-on-one ball isn't an issue, per se. After all, the Nuggets finished the season ranked fifth in offensive efficiency. "The problem with the isolation is not the actual isolation," Billups said. "It's the lack of movement." According to Billups, the Nuggets need to do a better job off the ball to help maximize the one-on-one advantages they have against Utah. "A lack of [movement] just lets one guy play against three or four."

Effort Deficiency

Carmelo Anthony vocally called out the Nuggets' effort following Game 3, and conversation continued today. "That was the main thing we talked about this morning in the locker room," Anthony said. "We've got to get out of our own heads. Last night I didn't see it in us. The body language wasn't there. People didn't seem focused throughout the game. As far as X's and O's, we know what they're going to do and they know what we're going to do. We just have to want it more than them." This line of reasoning was less persuasive to Dantley, who shrugged when asked about the Nuggets' effort Friday night. "Whenever you lose, you're always going to say 'lack of effort,'" Dantley said. "You just have to come with better effort and match their energy." Dantley joked that to amp his guys up, he was going to find an old clip of a Woody Paige story that characterized Dantley as a dog when Dantley's Jazz team trailed the Nuggets in a postseason series. "We came back and won the series," Dantley said. "Maybe I'll bring that to them."

Be Physical ... But Don't Foul Carmelo

Playing aggressive defense without putting your opponent on the foul stripe is a difficult balance to achieve. Against Anthony, it's the finest of lines. In Game 1 of the series, Anthony went off for 42 points against a Jazz defense that made things far too easy. Anthony was able to roam freely and control the game from the foul-line extended. The Jazz responded with a more physical presence on Anthony. They were able to get 42 points down to 32, but Anthony notched 14 points at the line in 15 free throw attempts. "Most of the fouls come in isolation situations, one-on-ones, and transition," Matthews said. In Game 3, Utah's wing defenders might have found their equilibrium -- relatively speaking. Anthony still had 25 points on 21 shots from the field in Game 3, but only got to the line for four attempts. Anthony acknowledges that racking up points at the line is vital for being successful. "That's a big part of my game," Anthony said. "For me to go out there and shoot three free throws in 40 minutes is tough, especially when I'm not trying to settle for a jump shot. My game is to get to the hole and get to the line. Three free throws is not going to do it."

Matthews believes that a defender has to take stock of the game when formulating a defensive strategy against Anthony. "You have to be smart," Matthews said. "You have to know when to be physical and you also have to know how the refs are calling the game. If they’re calling a tight game, then you can’t be as physical at times. But if they’re kind of letting the game go, then you can be a little bit more physical." Miles, who has carried the bulk of the assignment against Anthony, feels that a defender has to show Anthony a variety of looks. "I try to play him different ways the whole game," Miles said. "One time he comes down, I’ll just crowd him. Maybe the next time, he tries to post and I crowd him, but when he turns around to face me, I’ll back up – maybe give him a step, jump back and fake at him ... If he’s making a lot of jump shots, then I can’t play off him as much as I’d like to. If he’s getting to the basket or getting fouled, then maybe I give him a step."

Energy is a Solution for the Jazz

Asked about his first home playoff game, rookie Wes Matthews eyes lit up. "It was amazing," Matthews said with a big smile. "I can’t wait for tomorrow.” Naturally, Sloan dismisses any notion that playing at home should give a team a lift. Prior to Game 3, he performed his best Gene Hackman imitation when asked if his team would benefit from returning to their home court at Energy Solutions Arena. “I don’t know,” Sloan responded. “It’s the same length as the one over in Denver. It’s 94 feet. If you have to rely on that to get you going, you’re really in bad shape.” Court dimensions aside, playing in Salt Lake City made a difference for Matthews. "We were feeding off the crowd," Matthews said. "We were doing some of the same stuff in Denver, but you don’t get that same effect because, of course, they’re boos rather than cheers."