Denver • Buoyed by the announcement a few hours earlier that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell had been selected as NBA All-Stars, the Jazz came out for Thursday night’s game at the Pepsi Center all ebullient and ecstatic and energetic — they had perhaps even too much energy, if the seven turnovers in the first six minutes were any indication.
Still, they were moving the ball, raining down 3s, attacking Denver’s smallball lineups … for about two and two-thirds quarters, anyway.
After that, the heavy legs that came with playing their third game in four nights kicked in, the offense stagnated, the defense lost its ferocity, and the Nuggets capitalized with a hellacious 27-1 run, steamrolling their way into the lead, then holding on late for a 106-100 victory.
The officially-reeling Jazz have now lost three straight, and fell to 32-16 overall.
“The third quarter killed us. Outside of that, we were playing well on both ends,” Gobert said. “… I think we definitely are a little tired. You don’t want to think about that, but I still feel like, with a little more poise, we should have won this game.”
While the center validated his first All-Star selection with 21 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks, Mitchell’s performance will only give rise to the doubters who wondered whether his inclusion was someone else’s snub — as he missed his first nine shots of the game, and did not get on the scoreboard until there was 4:06 left to play. He finished with just four points on 1-for-12 shooting.
Still, Utah looked to be in solid position with four minutes to play in the third quarter. In spite of Mitchell’s struggles to get his shot to drop, Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson were carrying the offense with a barrage of treys, and Gobert was capitalizing in the paint, while making fellow All-Star Nikola Jokic work on the other end.
And then, just like that …
The ball stopped moving, possessions devolved into overlong, go-nowhere isolations, and shots were no longer going into the hoop. Denver took advantage, pushing the pace, getting the ball up the court in transition, and either capitalizing by a newly rediscovered 3-point stroke, or by relentlessly attacking the rim with lobs.
The combination meant a 15-0 Nuggets run to close the quarter with a 76-70 lead. It didn’t stop there, either. Over the first three and a half minutes of the fourth period, Denver outscored Utah 12-1 to blow the game open.
“The end of the the third quarter, that entire stretch, we stalled — for a lot of reasons. It was difficult for us to attack. We have to have more resolve. We’re a team of guys who make plays for each other. We weren’t able to create for one another,” said coach Quin Snyder. “… We weren’t able to take advantage of the opportunities we had when we were ahead. During that stretch, we obviously weren’t very good. … I thought we looked slow. … We weren’t as sharp and precise as we need to be with a lot of little things, and it was a collective thing.”
Utah eventually recovered — or, at least, Clarkson did.
Utah’s sixth man began blitzing Denver from all over the court; he would ultimately make 13 of 22 shots, including 7 of 12 from beyond the arc, and scored 24 of his season-high 37 points in the fourth to help the Jazz crawl back within three points with a minute and a half to go.
“When I’ve got space, coach is just telling me, ‘Let it go,’” he said. “I was just trying to do what I could do to impact the game. … I was just trying to pull us into the game where we’d have a shot at the end.”
They would get no closer, however, as Jokic sandwiched a jumper and a drive to the hoop for a layup around a missed Clarkson 3 to effectively put it away.
While the guard was upset about the one that didn’t go in, his teammates were quick to remind him they wouldn’t have been close to rallying at all if not for his efforts.
“We wouldn’t have been there without him. He had a different look in his eye, and I was like, ‘Look, you just lead us,’” Mitchell said. “… He’s a guy who can get it going any second; he just had that look where he was gonna take over. I said, ‘Look, we’re gonna do whatever it takes on the defensive end; you just go out there and score.’ And that’s what he did. He was pretty bummed that he didn’t get that one shot to go in; we’ll take that shot 10 times out of 10. I really respect him and his approach, ’cause we could have just easily hung it up and called it quits on the second night of a back-to-back.”
While the defeat was a disappointing capper to the day, and while they didn’t necessarily envision bringing a three-game losing streak into the finale of their three-game road trip in Portland on Saturday, it also wasn’t all doom and gloom afterward.
Sure, dropping those back-to-back games against the Spurs and Nuggets hurt, but Snyder was quick to point out that the resolve the team demonstrated in those defeats could ultimately make the difference down the road.
“[Wednesday] night’s game, we expended a lot of energy. We had a similar situation [Thursday] as far as we just continued to battle,” he said. “If you’re looking for some sort of silver lining, there’s one there — we hang in there, we don’t quit competing. When a team has that quality, you figure things out.”