The Denver Nuggets couldn’t overcome a sluggish start, a chippy atmosphere that led to multiple ejections. and poor outside shooting as they fell to the Utah Jazz 114-108. Utah’s dynamic duo of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell stepped up big in this one, with Mitchell going for 35 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists while Gobert put up 15 points and snagged 11 boards in a racous environment that booed Jokic every time he touched the ball after some first half altercations.

Denver’s Nikola Jokic was everywhere after an early ejection of Mason Plumlee for a scuffle with Derrick Favors – and Denver’s bench players at the time including Jokic may face a one-game suspension for leaving the bench area pending a ruling from the NBA tomorrow. Jokic scored 28 points and had 21 rebounds to go with 6 assists, but he didn’t get enough help on either end. Will Barton had an inconsistent game with some egregious fouls and turnovers to offset his 22 key points and 9 boards, and Harris put in a quiet 16 points, but the rest of Denver’s offense was AWOL. Paul Millsap finished 1-for-8 for just 2 points in 18 minutes and was benched for the fourth quarter, while Jamal Murray made too many mistakes on both ends of the court and netted a nearly invisible 9 points. In a close game, that made all the difference.

Naturally Denver opened the game by leaving Joe Ingles open, who hits the three. Rubio hits a sweet one-handed finish and free throw and a pass to Rudy Gobert for an 8-0 Utah lead. Jokic made a great pass to a cutter for Denver’s first points but Millsap bricked a three and Rubio nailed the return bucket. Murray got a bucket, Ingles hit another three, and Millsap smashed home a dunk to cut it to 13-8, Utah.

Unfortunately that was Millsap’s only bucket of the half, and Rubio single-handedly beat up Denver in the first 6 minutes with 8 points. Plumlee had a great block after a terrible turnover and Gary Harris had a nicely athletic finish after checking in. The Jazz kept pushing forward on defense and getting into the Nuggets, and Utah hit yet anothr three for a 23-14 lead. Michael Malone called a timeout after two Utah offensive rebounds led to a bucket. 

Right after, Mason Plumlee and Derrick Favors get into a shoving match after Favors yanked Plumlee’s arm, and bench players including Jokic leaving the bench to see if they need to step in. 

That might be a suspension for the off-the-court players for the Suns game. Favors and Plumlee were both ejected, which created a problem for Denver at center in the remaining three quarters. Denver got some turnovers with Barton looking a little more agile, but left Kyle Korver open for a three. A flurry at the end of the quarter left Denver down six, 30-24. 

The Nuggets opened with a 7-0 run including a Barton 3 to take the lead at 31-30. Barton and Korver traded more threes, while Gobert got his second personal and had to sit. Denver’s bench with Jokic commanding it stepped up with some paint finishes from Trey Lyles and Monte Morris to tie it back at 40. Denver rotated Millsap back in for Jokic while Utah kept bombing from three as Ingles and Korver both hit. 

Jokic snagged a steal and finished on one end, then had a nice transition behind-the-back finish the next time down, but Utah’s three-ball kept falling. It was 52-50 Utah when Donovan Mitchell his his third 3 in a row. Jokic actually got in a jawing match with Jae Crowder of all people after a travel. Gobert slammed home a dunk, Morris returned with a three the other way, but the Jazz went 13-for-26 and despite Denver’s fighting spirit and a coast-to-coast dunk from Gary Harris the Nuggets trailed Utah 65-58.

The third quarter continued the trend. Denver shot well but could not stop Utah’s three point assault and Rubio kept finding his scoring touch, looking more like Donovan Mitchell in this game. The Jazz stretched the lead back to 12 at 76-64 and it started to feel like Denver would have trouble closing the gap after Mitchell’s fifth three pointer. Harris and Ingles exchanged floaters, Jokic bricked a three, and some rather egregious mistakes kept Denver from closing the gap.

Jokic stayed crafty, Donovan Mitchell was explosive, and Utah’s defense kept Denver turning it over and prevented a run by the Nuggets. It was 84-70 when Trey Lyles slammed home a dunk and Monte Morris hit a three to cut the lead to 9. Barton rattled home a 3 in the waning seconds then stripped Rubio at the buzzer to make it 88-80 Utah with one quarter to go and some hope for the road team.

Trey Lyles finished in the paint to open the final frame and close it to six and Utah committed a pair of quick fouls. Barton tossed in another bucket for 19 points to that point, and Juancho Hernangomez got a nice block. Gobert and Jokic both came back in early but Jokic missed shots and Mitchell finished a 3 point play then hit a lucky bounce three for a 98-86 Utah lead. Murray hit a three for his first points in forty minutes but Crowder hit one right back and got fouled by Barton to boot.  

The Nuggets couldn’t get much traction from there. Jokic got called for an offensive foul with an elbow on Gobert, and Murray made a stupid foul at half court with 5 minutes left to put Utah in the bonus. Harris had a spectacular dunk but then Jokic committed his fifth foul as Denver started to fall apart. The Nuggets kept fighting through the difficulties with a Jokic three and then a finish over Gobert, but Jae Crowder hitting a corner bank shot three on a foul to get another 4 point play opportunity epitomized the night for both teams. 

Barton made a huge bucket to cut it to four at 111-107, then had a scary but apparently harmless fall over the top of Gobert. Rudy sealed the game from the line and Barton contributed with a 5 second violation – a bone-headed turnover from everyone involved. Jokic blocked a Gobert dunk, but passed to Craig instead of finishing at the rim where Craig too was blocked. It was just one one mistake too many in a game of weird bounces, and Denver fell at the end 114-107.

Final Thoughts

The Nuggets have to play to their strengths, and that currently is not defense. It was weird to see Torrey Craig getting tons of minutes on a night when Millsap’s shot was absent and Jamal Murray was making poor plays on both sides of the court. The Nuggets cannot get by on Jokic and Barton alone, but Denver did not prioritize offense much in this game. That’s not necessarily Malone’s fault, but without a good plan for slowing the Mitchell / Gobert pick and roll either it seemed silly to give Torrey Craig 38 minutes with Mitchell still scoring 35 points. Denver couldn’t hit threes but that was also a function of who was taking them. Millsap, Jokic, Craig and Lyles were 1-for-16 from beyond the arc. That’s not well-designed.

These are the sorts of playoff previews that Denver needs to use to fine-tune their approach. The team didn’t quit, but they definitely seemed put off their game by Utah’s defense and unprepared for Utah’s offensive assault. It’s hard to be prepared for a poor-shooting three point team to cash in 19 threes to your 7, but Denver’s got to do a better job of in-game adjustments when things like Plumlee’s ejection happen.

The Jazz are who we thought they were. Before the season I picked Quin Snyder as my prediction for Coach of the Year and thought Utah would get home court for the playoffs. They struggled early but after moving Donovan Mitchell into the point guard spot they’ve exploded into the potentially dominant team we all expected. Ricky Rubio won’t always be the offensive force he was in this game, and Jae Crowder banked threes are not an offensive gameplan, but this is not a team anyone wants to handle in a seven game series. That’s especially true for Denver and their 5 year struggle to buy a win in Salt Lake.

This game had good playoff atmosphere and chippiness, and the crowd in Utah – always among the most aggressive and energized in the game – brought their voices to the on-court product. Denver couldn’t pull out the win but it was an interesting and enlightening game between a team that had its A game despite injuries and a team that definitely did not. That said, I’m fine with Utah winning a few more games this year and not facing Denver in round one this April.

And now we’ll see what bodies are left to suit up for Denver against the Phoenix Suns after potential suspensions are handed out by the league for the bench clearing around the Plumlee incident. More fun news tomorrow folks.