It was a night for some veterans, but not the ones you might expect, as Darrell Arthur had a key first quarter and Jameer Nelson’s 17 points took Denver’s shaky lead home in the last few minutes as the Denver Nuggets outlasted the Utah Jazz 103-93.

Darrell Arthur had himself a night with 16 points and 8 rebounds, both season-highs, and his early outburst kept Denver in contact and let them reel Utah back in. Gobert was in early foul trouble for Utah but Favors played a strong game in his stead – it just wasn't enough. And Jameer Nelson – who must have heard his critics after the Minnesota loss – single-handedly shored up Denver’s terrible late game woes and dragged Denver to a victory.

Emmanuel Mudiay missed his second straight game with back tightness, which meant Jameer Nelson started the game next to Gary Harris. Gobert won the tip, had his shot stuffed by Jokic, and earned a foul on a Faried offensive rebound in the first 45 seconds. Hayward and Nelson exchanged made threes, but two overly-fancy passes from Jokic and Gallinari became turnovers and it was a poorly-executed brickfest on both sides for the next several minutes. Utah was up 9-6 halfway through the quarter with both teams going 5-for-21 combined with 7 turnovers.  Jokic then quick-stepped Gobert going coast-to-coast for a layup but Denver's offense remained out-of-sorts.

A botched Barton cut thanks to tough Utah defense also led to Jokic reversing the dynamic and cutting to the rim himself for a bucket. However more Nuggets turnovers led to layups by the Jazz and a 14-4 run by Utah to go up 20-10 as Denver hit just 4 of its first 19 shots. Darrell Arthur broke the stream with a pair of badly-needed 3s at the end of the quarter, but Denver still trailed 22-18 after one.

The bench was instrumental in cutting that double-digit deficit in the first, and came out in the second just as ready as Arthur hit ANOTHER three as did Will Barton.  George Hill abused Jamal Murray in the post several times and the Jazz out-executed the Nuggets but Denver's bench kept scrapping. Arthur's three free throws pulled the Nuggets back within 4 at 32-28. Barton ran the point and Denver displayed some surprising defense with Nurkic at center, and a pair of free throws from Faried tied it at 32 halfway through the quarter. Then the Harris / Jokic back-cut connection came through:

A Faried layup made it a 15-3 run for Denver and a 40-35 lead, then Harris and Gallo made it a 10 point lead as Utah went 1-for-11 with some weirdly passive offensive play. Jokic scored 10 in the half, Arthur had 12, and the Nuggets took a 12 point lead into the break, 51-39.

Jameer Nelson opened the second half with a backcut off the ball, looking very un-Jameer-like. The Nuggets then got Gobert into foul trouble early in the period via Jokic and Gallinari and took a 59-45 lead on a Jokic bank shot. The Joker began to impose his will on the game and Denver was playing well on both ends. Gallo even got a dunk:

 A Harris 3 made it 70-55, and all the starters were energetic with scoring balance. The Jazz looked tired, on the other hand, except for Derrick Favors who scored 16 points in the quarter to keep Utah in it. Jokic put his foot down, though, and Denver ended the quarter still up 80-67 – although they couldn't get a shot off at the buzzer.

The Jazz made the first 2 buckets of the quarter, but Chandler's first basket of the night was a 3 to a stop to that. Murray looked like he learned something in that George Hill matchup early, playing better defense and scoring on a gorgeous drive to the basket, channeling his inner MJ. 

Arthur bombed another 3 to take the deficit back to 15 at 88-73, but Denver then seemed content to slow the game down without actually finishing their scoring chances and left the Jazz in contact. Several starters returned but Utah managed to cut the lead to single-digits. Poor performance and end-of-game jitters cropped up and Utah cut it to 6 at 90-84 thanks to 5 turnovers in the first 7 minutes of the 4th.

Denver's prevent-offense was terrible with even Jokic getting tight, but Jameer Nelson hit a couple of baskets to hold the lead, then made a drive and pass to Jokic for a 3-point play. It was Nelson's en fuego three with 80 seconds to go was the dagger to put Denver up by 12 and end Utah's hopes.  The final score was 103-93 as Denver breathed a sigh of relief.

Two thoughts:

Jokic vs. Gobert went heavily in Jokic’s favor.  The Nuggets played Gobert just right, getting him into foul trouble, and Jokic (after an early TO spree) was content to pass, bank in shots and snag rebounds.  It was an understated but effective performance, if a 23/11/6 performance can be understated.

Defense showed up for the requisite two quarters to get the win. The Jazz were tired and it showed, but they kept fighting to their credit. Denver should have been able to put them away, but just couldn’t find that extra gear to do so. Regardless, they out-shot and out-rebounded the Jazz, and held them under 100 points – which for the Nuggets is a flexing of defensive muscle. I didn’t like Denver’s odds of winning a close game, but they managed to stave off the Jazz and keep this one from getting down to a one-score affair.

Bonus thought: Jameer wasn’t going out like that again.

And hey, Denver is back to .500 at home and have beaten another playoff team (schedule loss or no). Celebrate, Denver! The Nuggets are playing meaningful ball again.