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Nuggets implode late, fall to Jazz 106-96 in season opener

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Three quarters does not a win make

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

For three quarters the Denver Nuggets looked like the team they were meant to be this season, shooting well from deep, setting the tone and playing with a purpose against a really good Jazz team. But there are four quarters in the game, and as the old adage goes: “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

The team with all the offensive firepower in the world could not throw a brick into the ocean in the fourth quarter. With three minutes remaining in the game, the Nuggets had scored just five (!!!) points in the frame and had seen a five point lead fizzle into a 14 point deficit. Utah blitzed Denver on defense forcing 10 (!!!) fourth quarter turnovers and the Nuggets fell to a 106-96 loss.

Both teams started off rather sluggish, struggling to score and get any momentum going for the first several minutes of the game. Gary Harris was the first Nugget on the board in 2017-18 with a three-pointer as he was left wide open by a Jazz double-team on Jokic in the post. The Nuggets started to look more comfortable, especially after Will Barton came in, and quickly went on a nice run while Utah struggled to get anything going. Barton scored 10 points in the first quarter and the Nuggets finished the frame on a 23-9 run.

Barton continued his scoring streak early in the second with a steal and dunk, followed by another three. The rest of the unit, comprised of Jokic, Mudiay, Faried and Hernangomez, didn’t seem ready to play however and let Utah climb back into the game. Joe Ingles was left wide open twice for two three-pointers and the Jazz went on an 8-0 run. The last half of the quarter became a back-and-forth affair as each team went on mini streaks. The Nuggets suffered from a few defensive lapses during that time but also created opportunities of their own off of forced turnovers.

Going into the half the Nuggets held a nice 58-49 lead. Harris and Barton combined for 33 points off of 11-12 shooting, and as a whole Denver shot 56% from three.

Denver picked up right where it left off in the second half, controlling the tempo and scoring on nearly every possession. Jamal Murray knocked down a couple of threes to build up the lead and Paul Millsap had a strong third quarter of his own. Every time the Jazz started to build any momentum the Nuggets were there to respond with offense of their own, something they struggled with in the first half. Denver’s starters looked nearly unstoppable and played most of the third quarter, keeping the Nuggets to a double-digit lead. Joe Johnson did bank a three-pointer as time expired to cut the lead to five heading into the fourth.

The fourth quarter did not get off to a good start as Utah put up four fast points, forcing Malone to call a timeout not even a minute in. The quick break did nothing for Denver’s bench, as Utah upped the intensity on defense by quite a bit which absolutely rattled the Nuggets bench unit. For four straight minutes the Nuggets offense turned it over several times and looked plain scared to even attack. Meanwhile, Alec Burks hit two huge threes and added a layup for good measure. All of a sudden, the Jazz were up by 10 points, then 14. From there, it was all downhill.

Yes, it just one game. But it was a horrible loss no matter what way you look at it. The difference was simple: Utah upped its intensity in the fourth quarter and Denver folded like a chair. All night long Denver controlled the pace and was cruising, but when the Jazz adjusted there was no response. Instead, the Nuggets were pushed to the outside and when they did attack it was turnover after turnover after turnover.

The point guard play in the fourth quarter was NOT the reason for the loss, but it would be ignorant to deny that having a veteran presence in the backcourt wouldn’t have helped. As good as Jokic is, he’s still inexperienced in many ways and it showed tonight. He was a no-show in the second half, as was Will Barton after scoring 21 in the first two quarters. Murray was visibly frustrated in the fourth and Mudiay didn’t stand out either. Jamal and Emmanuel will need to step it up if Denver wants to have a successful season.

These things will come with time as the team plays more together and the younger players develop. But for the first four minutes when Utah made its huge run, a player like Jameer Nelson would have been great to slow things down, avoid scrambling on offense and help the team adjust to the added pressure. Losses like this one will be the trade-off on some nights.

There are still 81 games in the season. The loss is disappointing, but adversity is where teams grow and become better. Next up is Sacramento on Saturday night.