The Denver Nuggets came into Salt Lake City desperate for a win. After back to back losses that were as much about the lack of effort as they were the final score the Nuggets found themselves with their backs against the wall facing a bitter divisional rival in the Utah Jazz. Utah got good news before the game started with Rodney Hood being a go, but would still be without George Hill, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks. The Nuggets meanwhile were missing Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. Whether it was injuries or tired legs, the Nuggets were unable to keep pace with the Jazz in the second half and despite a valiant comeback effort would ultimately fall short as Gordon Hayward carried Utah to a victory

The first quarter opened with both teams making a focused effort on defense. Jusuf Nurkic and Emmanuel Mudiay scored the first nine points for Denver while Dante Exum helped lead the Jazz to an early lead. At the halfway point of the first neither team was converting at a high rate with the Jazz leading 11-9. Unfortunately Nurkic got himself into early foul trouble and had to go to the bench leaving Darrell Arthur to try and defend Rudy Gobert. Luckily the Nuggets started to get things going on offense, primarily from the wings and captured a lead with under four minutes to play in the first. Hayward kept the Jazz close and their bench kept the Nuggets at bay to earn a slim 24-21 lead after one quarter of play.

Wilson Chandler picked up the scoring load for Denver early in the second which kept Utah, who was getting a solid contribution from Trey Lyles, from expanding their lead. Hood also was carrying Utah’s production to start the second quarter and for a moment it looked as though the Jazz might pull away. However, Denver’s bench was able to keep up the good play and utilized a 12-6 run to keep things even at 35 when the second quarter hit the eight minute mark. Both teams clamped down defensively until their starters came back in which is when Utah made a 9-2 run to get their lead up to five. Denver responded, with Will Barton leading the charge and tied the game back up at 45 with about three minutes to play in the first half. The teams traded baskets down the stretch and Utah closed the half with a 49-47 lead.

Hayward got the third quarter started off on the right foot for the Jazz, leading a 9-2 scoring run to open the second half. There seemed to be a lid on the hoop for the Nuggets as they opened the quarter shooting 2-12. Utah’s lead quickly rose into double digits. For as cold as Denver got, Hayward got equally as hot. He scored 21 points in the third quarter alone and no matter what the Nuggets tried to do defensively, Hayward had the answer. As Coach Malone often says, the Nuggets are a three quarter team and that’s exactly what they were tonight. Utah outscored Denver 33-16 in the third quarter and left the Nuggets with a nineteen point deficit to overcome in the final quarter.

As has often been the case this season, Chandler and Jameer Nelson were the most consistent scorers on offense and Jameer hit two threes as the fourth quarter started. Denver started getting sloppy on both ends though. They had several turnovers and offered little resistance defensively so despite the efforts of Chandler and Nelson, the Jazz were maintaining a double digit lead. When the fourth quarter came near the mid way point Denver got on a run behind Barton, Gallinari and Chandler and trimmed the lead to eleven points. The Jazz offense stalled while the Nuggets went on a 16-2 run before Hood finally stopped the bleeding with a three to keep the lead at eleven with just under five minutes to go. The Nuggets wouldn’t go away though and a Barton three got them within six with two minutes to play. The Nuggets would in fact get it as close as five with two minutes remaining. They would have their chances but a kee foul draw from Hayward and a pair of missed field goals from Denver kept them from completing the comeback as the Jazz took the victory 105-98.

Best match up: Emmanuel Mudiay vs Dante Exum

Exum and Mudiay have a lot of similarities in their skill sets and like Mudiay, Exum struggled to convert efficiently on the offensive end his rookie season. Tonight, each showed the potential that made them high draft picks. Mudiay focused more on scoring, and he still had some frustrating failures to finish at the basket, but he also didn’t commit a single turnover, scored in double figures and had a couple nice plays defensively. Exum meanwhile helped carry the scoring load in the rare moments that Hayward was off and showed that quickness that can make him so lethal on offense. If both of these guys can figure out how to be more consistent shooters this could be a fun match up to watch within the division for years to come.

Main thing I noticed: Gordon Hayward is good

Hayward’s third quarter was ridiculous. He almost single handedly put the game away with his scoring explosion in that period. He shredded the Nuggets tonight with a full arsenal of offense. He drove to the basket for easy layups, he hit spot up three pointers from the corner, he was able to get to the free throw line repeatedly. It should have come as no surprise to Denver, Hayward had scored over 20 points in the five previous games, including a thirty one point effort two days ago against the Miami Heat. The Nuggets did a decent job of containing Hayward in the first half, but once they came out flat in the third quarter they had no chance as Gordon went into full alpha scorer mode.

Closing thought: Heads up and prepare for the east coast

Denver finds themselves in their second rut of the season with their third straight loss of the season. They can hang their hats on a much better effort tonight than the previous two losses though, and their comeback effort in the fourth quarter was very commendable even if it did ultimately come up short. With five more games on this road trip, all of which are against bad teams, Denver has to get mentally focused for the Philadelphia 76ers and ensure they get a victory to get off this slide. There’s still plenty of time in the season to make things right, and the rest of the month December is a relative cakewalk as far as opponents. Don’t get discouraged Nuggets, you gave it everything you had tonight even with the deck stacked against you. You’re right on the cusp of getting back to relevancy if you keep giving this kind of effort.

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