Denver » By their own admission, the Jazz couldn't have asked for a tougher test than opening the season on the road against the defending Northwest Division champion Denver Nuggets, with unfinished business coming off a Western Conference finals appearance.
It was a test they were in position to pass midway through the second half, before failing the final section. The Nuggets erased an eight-point deficit in the third quarter, then took control at the start of the fourth quarter in seizing a 114-105 victory at Pepsi Center.
"We've done that before, we've been there, done that last year," Deron Williams said. "Until we put together a full four quarters of defense, a full four quarters of basketball on the road, we're not going to be a good team."
Williams led the Jazz with 28 points and 13 assists, but committed a costly three-shot foul on Chauncey Billups with 0.4 seconds left in the third. Carlos Boozer, meanwhile, struggled through a nightmarish 3-for-14 shooting game, though he had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
"They picked it up a little bit and got a little tougher and we got a little softer, to make a long story short," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, adding, "We've got to be more of a veteran team rather than a rookie team out there playing."
The loss ended a streak of six consecutive season-opening victories by the Jazz dating to 2003. They will open at home Friday against the Blake Griffin-less Los Angeles Clippers, who have gone 1-34 all-time at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Jazz trailed 82-80 entering the fourth quarter and watched the game slip away with Williams on the bench. Ty Lawson beat fellow rookie Eric Maynor with a slick drive, then lost Maynor as he curled for a three-point play.
"He's going to see some of that, he's going to have bad days," Sloan said of Maynor, adding: "It's a sad commentary when you just watch guys shoot layups. Foul the guy and see if he can make two free throws, rather than just giving him a layup."
Maynor was pulled just 1:32 into the quarter, but Boozer promptly missed two jumpers after checking back in, leaving him 1-for-11 from the field. Lawson rattled in a pull-up jumper to give Denver its first double-digit lead at 91-80.
"I just felt like I missed them," Boozer said. "I felt like I had some good shots, just missed them. Shots I've been making my whole career, I just missed them tonight. But that wasn't what lost the game for us. We just didn't play good enough defense." Carmelo Anthony (30 points) punctuated the victory by hammering a dunk over Paul Millsap with 6:17 left after stealing a Millsap pass in the backcourt. Kenyon Martin's follow-up dunk after a Lawson miss made it 101-88. It was easy to forget by then that with Williams scoring seven straight points, the Jazz led 70-62 midway through the third quarter. Just as they teetered, however, the Nuggets responded with a 10-0 run.
Williams missed two jumpers and was called for a five-second violation as he tried to back down Anthony Carter. Billups connected on two three-pointers for Denver, the second coming after the Nuggets controlled a jump ball.
Billups scored 14 of his 25 points in the third quarter, the final three coming as Williams fouled him on a three-pointer just before the buzzer. As a result, instead of taking a lead into the fourth quarter, the Jazz found themselves trailing.
"When he came down, he pump-faked and I hit the ball," Williams said. "When I hit it, I thought it was going to come loose, so I put my hand down there and as soon as I did, he just raised up. "It's a bad foul, a stupid mistake, something I usually don't do. But I got caught slipping."
The Jazz suffered a scare only 24 seconds in when Mehmet Okur went down hard trying to take a charge from Nene on the break. Okur left for the locker room with a mildly sprained left ankle and knee, forcing Kyrylo Fesenko into action for nearly seven minutes.
Okur returned with 4:38 left and a sleeve on his knee, but hit three jumpers before the end of the quarter, including a three-pointer and a runner at the buzzer. He said after the game that his ankle was more of a concern than his knee.
"I didn't feel anything during the game," Okur said, "and kind of sore right now, my body kind of cool down. I'm sure it's going to be a little bit more sore [today] and hopefully I'll be OK Friday."
The Jazz took a 55-54 lead into halftime, even with Boozer having a first half to forget. Unable to get either his layups or jumper to fall, Boozer went 1-for-8 in the half with three points and six rebounds.
Boozer was stripped after Andrei Kirilenko wrapped a behind-the-back pass to him and had another Williams pass skip through his legs. He later stepped out of bounds for another turnovers as Denver made its third-quarter run.
IN SHORT » After giving back an eight-point lead, the Jazz's season opener went sour in the second half.
KEY MOMENT » The Jazz were on the wrong end of a 14-0 run at the end of the third/start of the fourth quarter.
KEY STAT » For all the emphasis on defense, the jazz gave up 114 points on 48.3 percent shooting to Denver.
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