The eruptions exploded for seismic swats and audacious 3-pointers, but no Nugget elicited more of an outburst from the crowd Friday night than DeAndre Jordan.
When he dialed up a 27-foot 3-pointer late in the third quarter, all of Ball Arena acted like they’d seen a shooting star. Or maybe it was a blue arrow – like the kind Jordan launched amid his stunning 3-point celebration. The Nuggets avenged their season-opening loss to Utah with a resounding 117-101 win, improving to 4-2 on the year.
They’ll visit the Lakers on Sunday carrying wins in four of their last five games.
Perhaps catching some of Jordan’s spirit, Bones Hyland buried seven 3-pointers en route to 26 points. Some of his bombs were so outlandish that when they fell, Nuggets coach Michael Malone didn’t know whether to celebrate the baskets or chide the attempts. The Nuggets hit 17 triples on the night, overwhelming a meager Jazz attack.
Michael Porter Jr. returned from his one-game absence, showing no signs of the back tweak that kept him out against the Lakers. Porter poured in 22 points on four 3-pointers. Most encouraging, Porter snatched 13 of the team’s 58 rebounds. As a team, the Jazz managed just 38.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sat due to a sprained ankle, but his pre-game shooting routine suggested it wasn’t a long-term concern. Bruce Brown started in his place, infusing his energy and effort into Denver’s stifling defensive effort. Rookie Christian Braun mirrored Brown’s relentless effort.
Utah managed just 41% shooting from the field, including 25% from 3-point range.
On a rare cold shooting night, Nikola Jokic didn’t need to lead the team in every statistical category. Playing only 25 minutes, he still registered 12 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
It took until the third quarter, but the old Jamal Murray popped yet again. He buried two 3-pointers several minutes into the third, then swerved into the lane and drained a lefty floater – his offhand. For the most part, the Nuggets carried the same defensive energy they’d played with in the first half. Aaron Gordon had several strong contests, and outside of a lapse late in the quarter, Denver remained stout. The 89-78 lead felt comfortable, yet not safe enough to exhale against a feisty Jazz squad.
Malone was insistent that the defense be more connected than it was in their opening-night loss to the Jazz. It helped that Murray had logged a few more games since seeing Utah over a week ago.
“I think he’s confident on that end,” Malone said. “ … I think a big part of it is him getting in game shape. When you haven’t been able to do a lot of stuff, it’s not surprising that after five games, he’s only played in four of those five, that he’s not in the game shape that he will be as we progress his minutes. … The challenge for him also is not to allow the offensive struggles trickle over into the defense.”
Murray played within himself in the first half Friday, but he had ample help all over the roster in engineering an impressive 63-50 halftime lead over the Jazz.
Porter paced Denver with 15 points (on three-3 pointers) and nine rebounds in 18 first-half minutes. He didn’t appear inhibited by his balky back, either. Having talked with his good friend Jarred Vanderbilt on Thursday, he was well-versed in Utah’s approach.
“There’s definitely something to be said about a coach and a program and a team that has low expectations, and they can just go play free,” Porter said, impressed with Utah’s early identity. “… It’s hard for any competitor to try to tank or whatever.”
Off the bench, Hyland buried four 3-pointers, each one seemingly a step further back than the last. As a squad, the Nuggets knocked down 9-of-16 triples in the first half.
But the real story of the first two quarters was Denver’s much-maligned defense. Brown and Braun flew around defensively, swarming and swatting at everything Utah could muster. Braun’s stunning highlight block on Jazz guard Malik Beasley ignited a smothering defensive effort kept a dangerous Jazz team at bay.