Thanks to an exceptional run late in third quarter that carried into the fourth quarter, the Denver Nuggets made the Utah Jazz's five-game winning streak seem like a distant memory almost instantaneously.
As written in my preview (taken by some Stiffs to be overly "gloomy"), Wednesday's affair in Salt Lake City should have been a tough one. Instead, thanks to a well-rounded effort from our Nuggets, it turned into a surprisingly delightful rout.
Leading the balanced attack for the Nuggets was the international tandem of Danilo Gallinari (Italian) and rookie Evan Fournier (French). Gallo and Fournier proved to be a one-two punch of sorts, with Gallo's efforts building the lead in the third quarter followed by Fournier's fourth quarter performance that sealed the win for Denver. And while I don't think anyone wants Fournier to start instead of the injured Ty Lawson anytime soon, it's nice to know that the Nuggets have a serviceable insurance policy with Fournier and Andre Miller should Lawson's plantar fasciitis injury persist.
Could Fournier be Masai Ujiri's latest great draft steal? Selected 20th overall last summer, Fournier was initially expected to stay in Europe for a year to work on his game. Instead, Ujiri astutely decided to keep Fournier stateside, figuring that in-season seasoning here would be better than the bad habits that can be developed overseas. It looks like Ujiri's gamble (to draft and keep him) and head coach George Karl's gamble (to give the kid playing time, even in a default situation due to the Lawson injury) will pay off ... and then some. Only 20 years old, Fournier plays with composure and confidence and it has showed in two straight games now. Wow.
But Fournier wouldn't have been in position to bring the Nuggets victory home had Gallo and the other Nuggets starters not had such an exceptional third quarter.
The first half excluded, Gallo had one of his more efficient games in recent memory, connecting on six of his 10 field goal attempts and half his three-pointers by game's end. (Not bad for a guy who had just five points in the first half.) And alongside Gallo's good night were fellow starters Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos' supreme rebounding performance - even though the box score may not show it, several of Faried and Koufos' offensive boards were game changers.
Individual performances aside, this game was won at the free throw line. Remember in late November when the Nuggets dropped a heart breaker at Utah by losing 105-103? In that game, the Nuggets missed 14 of their 32 free throw attempts. Well, tonight was a totally different story. Sent to the free throw line for another 32 free throw attempts, the Nuggets connected on 24 of them - a 10 point difference. At some point, if the Nuggets are serious about making a playoff run they'll have to be serious about making their free throws.
I don't know about you, but I didn't see this one coming. Given that the Nuggets had won 11 more games than Jazz entering the game, even without Lawson I figured the Nuggets had a good chance of winning. But in a blowout? No one saw that coming and thus, this could have been one of their most impressive wins of the season along with that stellar back-to-back performance in Oklahoma City a few weeks ago.
Non-Stiff(s) of the Night
Danilo Gallinari and Evan Fournier: The European tandem combined for 39 points on 13-19 shooting and some acrobatic around-the-rim layups to boot. Here's hoping this game propels Fournier to get some more playing time for the remainder of the season.
Stiff(s) of the Night
Mo Williams and Randy Foye: The Jazz starting backcourt combined for 4-21 shooting from the floor and just eight total assists. Not a good night for the Jazz guards and with the Lakers winning last night, the Jazz are again on the outside looking in at the Western Conference Playoffs.
Beyond the numbers and the on-the-floor performances, you have to love the camaraderie being developed on the Nuggets bench (did you see the bench players making Italian hand gestures every time Gallo made a big play?). It seems as though this team has truly gelled around their coach and each other, and it's a pleasure to watch. This win speaks volumes for the Nuggets for the remainder of the season should Lawson have to sit more ... now they just need to do it again when a desperate Dallas Mavericks team comes to Denver.