SALT LAKE CITY — The 2019 Denver Nuggets have found success where it eluded them last season. Their road record has improved dramatically, they’re taking care of business in potential trap games, and they’ve put an end to their losing streaks in Portland and San Antonio. Wednesday night’s game in Salt Lake City provides them with another opportunity to turn the page on past failures. Denver has lost seven straight games to the Jazz on the road, their last win coming on December 1st, 2014. It’s been a minute.
That was the theme of this morning’s media availability following Denver’s shootaround: what is it going to take to get a win in Vivint Smart Home Arena? For both Michael Malone and his players, the question drew their attention to the first game of the 2017-18 season, a road loss to Utah, a game they feel they should have won.
“Opening game last season, we had the game in control,” Malone told the media. “And Joe Johnson had a hell of a fourth quarter and did what Joe Johnson has done his whole career.”
“They don’t give up,” Will Barton added. “I think last year, the first game of the season, we were winning the whole game, and they just made huge run and took the game away from us.”
Lapses in focus and a lack of a killer instinct defined Denver’s relatively disappointing season in 2018. We saw glimpses of the team’s ability, what is now their baseline, but those encouraging stretches were punctuated by letdowns like that fourth quarter in Utah. It takes four quarters of discipline, four quarters of your best basketball to get a win on the road. Especially in Utah—for Denver, at least.
The Jazz are just 13-9 at home this season, far from a decided advantage, but that record doesn’t reflect the hostile environment in Vivint. The fans are rabid, loud as hell, and they sit right on top of you in a unique setup. The arena feels cramped, small, one might say, but that’s by design. I felt suffocated as I stepped onto the court this morning, and that was in an empty gym—one that seats 18,300, roughly three hundred more than the Pepsi Center.
“Their crowd gets behind them,” Barton told reporters. “Especially when they make runs, they have one of the best crowds in the NBA.”
Malone echoed that sentiment:
“To me, this is one of the toughest places to play in the NBA. You have to play a clean game and you have to defend at a high level.”
The former speaks to an issue that plagued Denver last season, empty possessions that provided opponents with even cleaner looks than their porous half court defense allowed. That issue has been addressed this season: according to CleaningTheGlass.com, the Nuggets are turning it over just 14 percent of the time per 100 possessions, down from 15.3 percent last season, and the 12th best mark in the league at the moment.
Playing a “clean game” will be crucial, as the Jazz are currently boasting the league’s best defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re ranked fourth in that same category on NBA.com, and third on basketballreference.com, but no matter who you ask, this is an elite defense.
That latter key to victory, as identified by Malone, appears to be a priority for a coach with much on his mind. Denver’s own defensive rating sat in-or-around the top five for much of the young season, but that rating has slid over these last couple of months. CTG has them ranked 13th in the league, still above average, and well above what we expected to see heading into opening night. But that slide has been mentioned in virtually every Malone-scrum since the start of January.
Ask the head coach, and he’ll gladly identify the defense as the key to their hot start this season. Ask just about anyone on the Nuggets, and it’s clear that defense is the key to ending this losing streak tonight.
“Everybody knows, when we play defense we can win any game, beat anybody,” Jamal Murray told the media after shootaround. “Our biggest challenge is to play defense for each and every game — especially just limiting our mistakes on the defensive end.”
It will take four quarters of Denver’s best defensive effort to get a win tonight. Well, that, and a little good fortune.
“Portland came in here and beat them in the fourth quarter,” Malone remarked. “I thought Utah got great looks, but did not make shots. So you have to get a little bit lucky as well. Hopefully we can stop that seven-game slide in Utah.”