By the time the Denver Nuggets tipped off their game against the Utah Jazz in the Pepsi Center on Thursday night, the Philadelphia 76ers had put the finishing touches on a road win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Down in Orlando, the Kevin Durant-less Warriors had already dropped one to the Magic. This set the stage for some movement in the Western Conference standings. A win would give Denver sole possession of first place and open up a near insurmountable five-game lead—with the head-to-head tiebreaker secured—over the Thunder.
They were denied that win as the Jazz turned in a masterful defensive performance and grabbed a 111-104 victory on the road.
The Nuggets have struggled to open games the way their head coach Michael Malone would like this season—with tenacious effort and strong communication on the defensive end. It’s not uncommon for the Nuggets to allow one too many buckets in the first 12 minutes, only to dig themselves out of that hole in the second half.
The script flipped on Thursday.
In the opening quarter the Nuggets opted to trap the ball handler when Gobert was used as a screener in the pick-and-roll, a strategy that requires diligent communication on the subsequent rotations, and one that has left Denver vulnerable in the corners all season long.
The Jazz did get 13 three-pointers up, but Denver’s rotations were on point and nearly every shot was contested. Only three of those shots from deep found the bottom of the net. Denver was able to hold the Jazz to just 19 first-quarter points, a result that might have pleased Malone if not for their dreadful work on the other end.
Utah’s defense—one of the best in the league—clamped down on the Nuggets. Not a single player on Denver scored more than 4 points in the quarter and they were held to 22 points overall—just the seventh time this season they’ve failed to score at least 23.
The second quarter belonged to Utah.
Only Nikola Jokic was able to score more than three points in the quarter, but he was 1-for-4 from the field and turned it over twice. All told, Denver shot an abysmal 5-for-22 (23%) from the field and 1-for-7 from deep. They turned it over seven times resulting in eight points for Utah, who did not need the extra help on the offensive end.
The Jazz thawed out from deep (5-for-10) and torched the Nuggets for 33 overall points with Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles leading the way.
As the two teams headed back to their respective locker rooms, Denver was down 52-37, but the gap felt even bigger than that. Those 37 points were the fewest the Nuggets have scored in the first half all season.
The third quarter began with much of the same. The Nuggets couldn’t get the lid off the basket, and that first quarter defense felt like a distant dream as Utah torched them with the pick-and-roll, putting pressure on the backline defender and creating multiple open looks from three.
One of those threes came from legendary sharpshooter Kyle Korver with 6:05 remaining. The shot pushed Utah’s lead to 18 points and the Jazz looked ready to run away with it.
That’s when Will Barton stepped in.
From that point until the end of the third quarter, Thrill poured in a ridiculous 13 points on 4-for-5 from the field. He stepped it up on the defensive end as well and galvanized his teammates as they made a strong push to end the quarter. Barton’s effort was crucial as Jokic, the best player on either team, picked up his fifth personal foul with 4:50 remaining and was forced to sit for the remainder of the third.
That late run would cut Utah’s lead down to just 8, but Mitchell drained a three near the buzzer to push the lead back up to double digits.
The Nuggets carried that momentum into the fourth quarter. The bench was able to cut into the lead with a 7-3 run out of the gate. A pair of free throws from Gary Harris dropped the lead to just five and the crowd erupted as they felt the momentum swinging in Denver’s favor. But the Nuggets left Korver open in the corner—an unfortunate theme in this game—and he drilled the three. That was the start of a damning 13-0 run from Utah.
The game seemed over. Done. But Denver had another run in them.
The starting unit from opening night closed out their second straight game and they led a furious rally. It looked like they were ready to finally take the lead around the two minute mark, especially after a three from Millsap cut the lead to just three with 1:14 remaining, but an incredible stretch from Mitchell kept them at bay.
The most important play of the game came with 49 seconds remaining, when Jokic put up a floater in hopes of cutting the lead back to three. Gobert swatted it, which was called a goal tend, but the referees stopped play to review the call. It was overturned, and the Nuggets were not awarded possession. A jump ball was called, which resulted in Utah’s possession.
With the loss, the Nuggets’ record drops to 42-19 overall and 27-5 at home. They’ll get another crack at it on Saturday night when they host the New Orleans Pelicans. That game tips off at 7:00 pm MT.