The Denver Nuggets returned home with a 3-0 record and looking to win their first back to back game of the season. In their way stood the 1-2 Utah Jazz. Both teams were playing their third game in four nights and it showed in a game that often times wasn’t pretty and involved more missed free throws than I can remember. Nikola Jokic led the way with another triple double, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon also had strong nights. Utah got big performances from Lauri Markannen and Walker Kessler but it wasn’t enough to overcome an early Denver lead. The Nuggets grind out another one and snag an eight point victory to stay undefeated.

Denver opened the game showing no fear of Utah’s size and attacking the paint to grab the early lead. Murray was the one doing the most damage, including a pretty finish on a pocket pass from Jokic. Utah had to call a timeout with Denver’s lead growing and they responded out of the TO with a 7-0 run. By midway through the quarter Utah had closed back within two points after a John Collins alley-oop basket and it was Michael Malone’s turn to take a timeout. Jokic settled it down with back to back baskets while Denver tightened up their defense with the bench starting to check in. Both offenses stalled out with their bench units. The game seemed stuck on 24-18 for at least two minutes. Perhaps in response to the cold offense Malone inserted Julian Strawther into the game. The bench plus Murray group found a little success right at the end of the first and were able to push the lead to ten going into the second quarter.

The Nuggets bench group was infinitely more capable than Utah’s to open the second. Strawther hit a floater, Zeke Nnaji man balled Kessler on an offensive rebound and putback meanwhile the Jazz threw up a lot of bricks. Perhaps inexplicably trying to one up all the iron Utah was drawing, Strawther and Peyton Watson threw up back to back airballs before Markannen hit a three to put the game back within single digits. The Nuggets definitely looked like a team on a back to back, every single shot they took was drawing front iron at best. Their defense was top notch on the other end though and Utah couldn’t get within striking distance. Halfway through the quarter Michael Porter Jr. got his third foul and had to go to the bench but the rest of the starters were up to the task of keeping up with Collins who got hot. Jokic did most of the damage to close out the half for Denver. He knocked down a three with under a minute to go to push the lead to thirteen headed into the break.

Denver’s starters opened the second half with more tough defense and more Jokic but continued to struggle with their shooting. Utah started to find success driving to the basket and drawing Jokic in for help defense which left Kessler open under the basket for more than one lob finish. The momentum started to swing on Utah’s side. Everything was open threes and dunks and the Denver lead quickly fell below ten. Jokic was still strong and Porter got it going so Denver continued to have a multi-possession lead but their defense that was so strong in the first half looked confused and out of position for most of the third quarter. Utah kept chipping away, aided by Denver’s poor free throw shooting but the Nuggets seemed to have the answer every time it started to get close. Murray carried the team down the stretch of the third quarter, particularly with his playmaking but Utah continued to hang around. The quarter ended on some sloppy play by Denver but they were still up 80-69.

Opening the fourth the arena felt flat. Denver got a couple buckets but the Jazz, led by Collin Sexton, were knocking down threes and pulled within striking distance. With Utah within six points Malone called a timeout and called Jokic back into the game early to settle things down which is exactly what Joker did, immediately sparking a run to push Denver back up by eleven. That’s where the game stayed for a bit. The teams traded baskets and missed free throws. Denver just couldn’t quite pull away though and the quarter moved past the six minute mark with the Nuggets still up by about ten. Talen Horton-Tucker kept attacking the basket and Kessler got an and-one but Utah was starting to run out of time. They made one last push down the stretch and got as close as five points under two minutes. In the end though, Jokic did what Jokic does and put the team on his shoulders to get a couple baskets. Jazz Coach Will Hardy for some reason couldn’t let it go and drug out the last 30 seconds far longer than what it needed to be so we got to watch the Nuggets brick some more free throws and Hardy got to draw up some genius plays trailing by eight with eleven seconds to go, too bad he only got time to run one which resulted in an air ball. Nuggets win 110-102 and move to 4-0.

Best matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Walker Kessler

Oct 30, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) fouls Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) in the first quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It was a battle of the bigs tonight between Jokic and Kessler. As strong as Walker is defensively, he didn’t have many answers for Jokic who was the gift that kept on giving for the Nuggets every time the Jazz were getting close. Another ho-hum triple double for the Joker against one of the top defensive bigs in the league. In four games Jokic has faced Anthony Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr., Chet Holmgren and Walker Kessler. He’s averaging 26.3 points, 13 rebounds and 7.7 assists while shooting 61.5% from the field and 45.5% from three. Unreal. Kessler still had a very good game in his own right. He owned the third quarter and the paint all night long and finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds. Plus he missed only one shot. I use the word “shot” liberally here because I’m not sure Kessler had a field goal outside of 3′ from the basket which is exactly how Utah wants him to get his points. It seems crazy but if you redid the Rudy Gobert trade and it was just Kessler for Gobert straight up that’s still a trade that Utah wins.

Key Takeaway: This team plays defense

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was showered with chants of “first team” from all his teammates after the game as the campaign for KCP to earn first team all defense honors this season is officially started. Nothing so far has been stronger in KCP’s campaign than his play on the court of course and the enthusiasm is well deserved. It’s not just Kenny Pope though, Murray is playing lockdown defense on guards and blocking them while they try to drive, Watson is intimidating opposing players from even entering the lane, Nnaji is backing down to no one in the paint. Across the board the Nuggets players are locked in on defense. They still had brief lapses tonight, particularly at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarters, but they bottled up the Jazz the majority of the game and held them to 102 points, you can’t complain too much.

MPJ rebounds were missed

Malone closed the night with Christian Braun instead of Porter and stated after the game that it was not due to injury management but that he was rewarding Braun’s strong play. Christian definitely had a strong performance, with 9 points and 8 rebounds off the bench but Mike looked like he was the most fatigued from the back to back. In the first three games this season he attacked the glass with ferocity, averaging over 11.5 rebounds a game. Tonight he had one. Sadly our pregame bet of over 7.5 rebounds for MPJ did not hit. He battled foul trouble in the first half plus Mike sat out the entire preseason so it’s understandable that he might be behind some of the other guys in terms of his conditioning, plus he’s probably still not 100% on his ankle.