The Jazz limped into Ball Arena Saturday night a hurting unit, with injuries to key players and stinging from a 118-108 home loss to Minnesota on Friday night.
“Those teams scare me,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “This game will test our maturity.”
As well as Denver’s frequent matador defense. Olé!
Sure enough, the Jazz pushed the Nuggets to the limit before Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic — Denver’s two veterans — carried the Nuggets to a 115-110 victory.
“I think when you face a team that doesn’t have all of its firepower, you kind of relax, naturally,” Murray said, echoing Malone’s feelings. “Offensively, it was easy for everybody. Well, not easy, but we got what we wanted. So we got a Iittle bit lax on defense. … So we didn’t lock in, but we got the job done.”
After the Jazz scored 38 points in the third quarter, the Nuggets dug in and held them to 20 in the final period, much to Malone’s relief — and his consternation.
“That’s two games in a row now in the fourth quarter where our defense was great,” he said. “But we can’t pick and choose how we want to defend and what’s going on too often right now.”
Jokic pulled off a triple-double — 31 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists — and his perfect feed to Bruce Brown for a slam with 1:19 left was the key bucket of the game. It was Jokic’s fourth triple-double of the season and the 80th of his career.
Murray, who scored 30 points, drained two free throws at the end to clinch the victory.
Malone, who worked the game with an injured back that forced him into the locker room during the first quarter, had good reason to be nervous.
Utah played without guards Mike Conley, Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson, as well as forward Lauri Markkanen, but five Jazz players scored in double figures, led by Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s season-high 27 points.
Utah lost for the eighth time in 11 games after a 12-6 start.
Although Denver threatened to put Utah in its rearview mirror throughout the game, the Nuggets’ lead was just 92-90 at the end of three quarters. And the Jazz led 105-104 with 4:53 left when Alexander-Walker drained a free throw.
Thursday night, Murray sank a game-winning 3-pointer in Denver’s 121-120 win at Portland, scoring 14 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. Was he up for an encore?
Absolutely. He shot 13 of 19 from the field and dished out five assists.
When asked what was working, Murray said, “Everything. Just let me know when you want a bucket.”
He was only half-kidding.
“I’m playing with confidence and playing with pace,” he said. “I’m keeping the defense guessing and I’m just in the flow right now, not overthinking it and just playing basketball.”
“I think Jamal has found that rhythm and he’s found that confidence,” Malone said.
Murray and Jokic keyed a 10-2 run in the final two minutes of the first half to extend Denver’s lead to 61-52.
It looked like the Nuggets were ready to silence the Jazz. It didn’t turn out that way but Malone was thankful for the victory.
”These games scare the hell out of you because you know the guys that can play are going to leave everything on the floor, not looking over their shoulder,” Malone said of the undermanned Jazz. “They’re just going to play. We saw that tonight. Any win in this league is a good win. Yes, we have to clean some things up, but 16-10 is a hell of a lot better than 15-11. We’ll take it.”