The Denver Nuggets went into Utah looking to continue their winning ways, but a 15 point fourth quarter and going only 6-for-26 from three point range ultimately doomed the Nuggets, who lost 97-88 to a scrappy Jazz team that would not go away. The Nuggets won the rebounding battle 44 to 37 but crucial misses and getting away from paint points late were the final difference. Gordon Heyward led all scorers with 26, hitting 4 of Utah's 10 threes on the night, while Danilo had a quiet night with just 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting. Joffrey Lauvergne set a career mark with 13 rebounds to go with his 12 points in a losing effort.
Lauvergne and Jameer Nelson scored the first 10 Nuggets points between them but the Jazz began the game 9 of 13 from the field and Derrick Favors swished a two for a 20-10 early Utah lead. Gary Harris chipped in the next 5 for the Nuggets, who along with the bench kicked off an 11-4 run for Denver that was ended by Alec Burks's three pointer. Will Barton clanged iron to end the first quarter with the Nuggets down 30-23 - the first 30-point first quarter of the year for Utah.
The Nuggets and Jazz traded buckets and trips to the free throw line in the first few minutes of the second, as Barton took a wild drive into the paint around three Jazz players and got an underhanded layup to cut it to 36-30. Hustle wasn't the problem in this first half, shot-making was, but the Nuggets stayed in touch regardless. Trey Burke had 11 first-half points to pace Utah but the Nuggets closed on an 8-2 run to end the half trailing just 53-49 with aggressive drives and hustle coupled with decent ball movement. That's despite shooting 40.5% from the field and hitting only 3 three-pointers - Denver made up the difference by going 16-of-18 from the line. Chris Dempsey put the plan of attack into focus:
#Nuggets 2nd Q shooting: 6/10 at the rim; 1/6 everywhere else. This adds to the 3/16 shooting on jumpers in the first quarter.— Chris Dempsey (@dempseypost) December 19, 2015
The Nuggets started by hustling up a couple of rebounds on offense that turns into a Jameer jumper, and then Nelson got a block on the other end. Gallo's free throws cut it to one and then Faried finally sank a shot to get Denver the lead at 55-54 Five straight points for Lauvergne on a dunk and a 3 put Denver back up 64-61 after a 15-8 start to the third quarter. The Jazz would not go away, however, posting a 7-2 run after some nice work by Nuggets big men on offense couldn't earn a sustainable lead. The Nuggets scored 16 of their 24 points in 3rd in the paint, learning from their first half jumpshooting struggles, but settled for bricked threes and turnovers in the last couple of minutes and gave back their 3rd quarter gains. They trailed the Jazz again by 4 going into the 4th 77-73.
Denver's reserves began the fourth quarter with good defensive effort, stuffing the first 4 Utah possessions but failing to capitalize on all of them. Randy Foye's unnecessary airball pass on an open break was the most egregious of the giveaways. Still, Barton's 3 retook the lead 80-77 as the Nuggets kept coming up with good defensive plays, Darrell Arthur in particular. Denver's starters came in with about 6 minutes left as utah was in the middle of a 7-0 run to retake the lead 84-81. The game was tied up again by Gallo on a sideways-leaning 3, but the starters were cold coming off the bench and never recovered. A series of mistakes down the stretch (a turnover on a hard Faried screen, a blown layup by Barton, a 5 second violation on Denver) set the stage. Hayward made a layup on a non-called travel, the Nuggets threw up another pair of aimless 3s and the Jazz put the game away. Denver's offense once again failed them in crunch time.
Effort wasn't the problem. Make no mistake, the effort was there for the Nuggets, but poor jumpshooting and decision-making doomed them once again. They shot 40.3% from the field (23.1% from 3) and for a while had realized that they needed to get into the paint to score. Faried had a poor shooting night, but he wasn't alone. Michael Malone went to his hockey shift lineup change in the fourth quarter and none of the returning starters (or Barton) found their rhythm in the last 6 minutes of the game. At some point Malone may want to think about leaving some players in the game who haven't been sitting out for 20 or 30 real-life minutes. Expecting them all to play cohesively after they've watched an episode of Friends from the bench might not be the best plan. The game was there for the taking, but strategy and execution lacked at the end from both a coach and player perspective.
Denver couldn't stop their backcourt while their own was ineffective at the end of the game. Utah's guards put up 41 points, which can't happen if Heyward is also going to go off. Randy Foye rang up zero points as the backup point guard, and Harris was nearly invisible on offense in the second half, and was 1-for-6 from beyond the arc for the game. Jameer had an efficient 15 points on 5-of-8 from the field, but getting more than that from him is a bonus, not an expectation. Denver's guards were 3-of-18 from three point range - that's called shooting yourself out of a game. Mudiay is not the only guard on the team who can struggle to score, but with him out for another week or more the Nuggets can't afford these vanishing acts. There's no one else to lean on in the backcourt.
Denver's backup centers could start for other teams. Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic combined for 19 points and 23 rebounds in exactly 48 minutes of play. And neither is the best center on the roster. With Jusuf Nurkic cleared to participate in full-contact practices once more the Nuggets will finally get their full complement of big men back on the court shortly, perhaps before the new year. The Nuggets still haven't won a game this year that they didn't score a hundred points in and have trouble coming close to that figure if either Gallinari or Barton struggle at all. If the Nuggets can get their Cerberus-style three-headed Euro monster working in the front court, perhaps that will take the pressure off the wings and back-court and allow the offense to continue to flourish - and to attack the paint, which is the only place Denver's offense has consistently found success this year.
In fact, rather than game footage, please enjoy these clips of Nurkic running up and down a basketball court. The future is bright, even during these stumbles.