Wednesday’s matchup at Vivint Smart Home Arena between the Jazz and Nuggets had a playoff-type atmosphere to it.
Back-and-forth buckets. Heightened intensity. Even an altercation resulting in multiple ejections and several more technicals.
In the end, the Jazz capitalized on a franchise-record 13 made 3-pointers in the first half and a couple of dominant stretches from guard Donovan Mitchell to beat back every Denver rally en route to a 114-108 win over the team with the second-best record in the Western Conference.
The victory certainly generated some swagger from the team afterward.
“We feel like we can beat anybody in the league,” said Jae Crowder. “… We’re very confident in ourselves and in our work and our approach to the game. I feel like every night we have a chance to win the game, and we also feel that way as a group.”
There certainly was confidence at the game’s start.
Joe Ingles showed no hesitation in firing up — and burying — a 3. Ricky Rubio, once again in the starting lineup in his second game back from a hamstring injury, hit a reverse layup-and-one. Then he faked a pass to Derrick Favors to get Denver’s defense leaning, before dishing it to Rudy Gobert cutting in from the other side for an 8-0 advantage.
Everyone knew it wouldn’t be that easy, however. And indeed, before the quarter was up, things got intense.
At the 2:46 mark, Crowder was whistled for a foul on Nuggets reserve big man Mason Plumlee. Plumlee and Favors then came together, exchanged words, and a physical confrontation ensued under the basket in front of Denver’s bench.
When the dust settled and the review was completed, both Favors and Plumlee were ejected, and both Royce O’Neale and Will Barton were assessed technicals.
Denver’s star big man, Nikola Jokic, appeared to leave the bench during the scrum, but was not penalized.
“We wanted to come out with a lot of fight — D-Fav took it to another level,” joked Kyle Korver. “But we really kind of fed off that, to be honest with you. The energy was great out there tonight.”
However, the momentum in the immediate aftermath seemed to favor the Nuggets. They closed to within 30-24 by the end of the first quarter, then began the second on a 7-0 run to take the lead.
That’s when the Jazz took their 3-point proficiency to another level: After making five in the first quarter, Utah wound up making eight in the second.
Ingles and Korver, the Jazz’s so-called Splash Uncles, each nailed a trio of 3s in the half. Meanwhile, Mitchell caught fire. After scoring just two points on 1-for-3 shooting in the opening 12 minutes, he drained 4 of 5 from deep in the next period, and was up to 16 points by the break.
“Just being aggressive. Sometimes those shots I take won’t go in, but I’m not gonna change, I’m gonna continue to take those same shots,” Mitchell said. “There were times this year where the same shots I’ve taken haven’t gone in. But there are times you just gotta feel confident … in every shot you take.”
Still, the Jazz couldn’t quite break the game open, despite Denver accumulating just a trio of 3s itself.
Then again, the Nuggets didn’t really need the deep shots, the way Jokic — who came into the game averaging 7.7 assists per game — was locating open teammates. Every time an ill-advised double-team came his way, he found somebody, and the Nuggets racked up 36 points in the paint in the opening half.
After that, it became a pair of brawlers trading haymakers — figuratively speaking, of course.
The Jazz steadily expanded their lead to as many as 15 points in the third. But with Mitchell and Gobert on the bench, the Nuggets clawed their way back to within single digits.
By early in the fourth, Utah’s lead was down to four. And coach Quin Snyder had seen enough — sending his star duo back in. They had their intended impact.
The big man slowed Denver’s forays to the rim, and made Jokic work in the paint. Mitchell, meanwhile, went crazy on offense, utilizing the high pick-and-roll, draining another pair from deep — the second of which bounced three times on the rim before dropping through the cylinder — and before the Nuggets knew what had happened, Mitchell was up to 31 points, and the Jazz lead was back up to a dozen.
“Donovan had a great game — he’s playing unreal. That’s Donovan, he’s playing out of his mind,” Rubio said. “… Give him a lot of credit. He’s fun to watch.”
Mitchell wound up with 35 points, six assists and six rebounds. Gobert finished with 15 points, 11 boards, and three blocks. Rubio totaled 17 points and six assists in just over 24 minutes. Ingles had 14 points and eight assists. Crowder scored 15 off the bench.
Jokic, meanwhile kept Denver in it — he finished with 28 points, 21 rebounds, and six assists — as the Nuggets again rallied to win four points with a minute and a half left.
But the Jazz responded with big play after big play: A Crowder 3; forcing a five-second inbound violation; Crowder rotating over to stop Jokic and forcing him to pass, Gobert rotating over to make Torrey Craig hesitate on his shot, then Mitchell swooping in from behind to swat the ball away.
The game was intense, it was fun, and — from Utah’s perspective — it was productive. Even if it didn’t carry a postseason vibe for all involved.
“It was a good regular-season game. It was a good one,” Korver said with a grin. “Two good teams, we both play fun basketball — get up and down. A couple strong personalities on both sides, and it makes for a great Wednesday night.”