Between lingering injuries and pending trades, the Denver Nuggets came into Wednesday’s game at Vivint Smart Home Arena sufficiently short-handed that coach Mike Malone had to check the NBA rulebook about what to do if his team was down to five players and one of them fouled out.
The Jazz weren’t exactly sympathetic. Coming in with four straight losses, including several against short-handed opposition, Utah would take a win any way it could get it.
And then they somehow managed to not get it.
Against an opponent with only seven available players, and on the second night of a back-to-back, and playing its third game in four nights, the Jazz ultimately dropped a stunning, bewildering, confounding, frustrating 98-95 decision.
The loss was Utah’s fifth straight, and sent the reeling team to 32-18 on the season.
“We haven’t played well. We’ve played sporadically. We’re not as good. We have to find that again, and there’s no easy answers,” coach Quin Snyder said afterward. “When you have adversity on the scoreboard and in the form of losses, that’s your look in the mirror. I think we’ve been doing that — no one has any illusions we’ve been playing well, but that hasn’t translated.”
Still, for much of Wednesday’s game, it looked like an alternately embarrassing and infuriating performance would nevertheless produce a victory.
Though Denver came in with only seven players — one of whom was the not-exactly-widely-known Vlatko Cancar — the Jazz never could solve the dual riddles of Nikola Jokic (30 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists) and Jamal Murray (31 points, four assists).
But then, there were a ton of things the Jazz couldn’t solve — the Nuggets finished with more offensive rebounds, more total rebounds, more assists, and fewer turnovers.
The Jazz, on the other hand, had far more offensive stagnation.
As a result of managing just 38 total points after halftime, Utah blew leads of 15 and 10 points in the third and fourth quarters, respectively. And with the game unexpectedly tight late, Utah’s players seemed the tightest of all — committing seven of their 14 turnovers in the final period alone.
Utah shot just 41.9% overall, and its woes were best illustrated by its star, Donovan Mitchell, who totaled 18 points and eight rebounds, but endured an 8-for-24 shooting, four-turnover, one-assist performance.
Snyder pointed out there was plenty of blame to go around.
“Some of the little things that we were doing [earlier in the season], we haven’t done, and it shows up in a lot of different ways, whether on the boards, breakdowns, getting backcut,” he said. “… Everybody’s got to do a better job defensively, and we’ve got to move the ball better. … It’s not one end. There’s not one thing you can point to. … It’s a collective awareness and a collective sense of urgency.”
That urgency seemed to be lacking for much of the night against an opponent that should have been tired, should have had trouble keeping up, but which always seemed to be lurking.
After blowing that aforementioned 15-point lead late in the third quarter, the Jazz found themselves trailing 78-77 early in the fourth. But then, upon reverting back to a lineup featuring their own top players, Utah finally seemed to locate the juice it needed.
Jordan Clarkson drilled a pick-and-roll 3. On the Jazz’s next possession, he tossed up a deep, pinpoint lob to Mitchell — flying in from the left side — for a vicious, one-handed alley-oop. Next thing you knew, Utah was on an 11-1 run that re-established its advantage in double-digit territory.
It looked like that might finally do the trick and put the pesky Nuggets away. Except Denver refused to go, and the Jazz were not able to make them.
“We’ve got to be tougher mentally. We’ve got to be better not just down the stretch, but when we’re up 15 or 10 points — we get comfortable, we start taking bad shots, we start giving up offensive rebounds. I feel like we don’t have the mentality of a very good team,” said Rudy Gobert. “… They wanted it more. I feel like the last five games, every team that we played wanted it more than we do. … Mental toughness is the No. 1 thing that got us where we are right now; we just gotta get it back.”
Indeed, rather than settle into a throat-crushing, game-clinching groove, Utah continued to struggle and enable the Nuggets to make a game of it, when they oughtn’t have had any business doing so.
Turnovers were committed, offensive rebounds were surrendered (in one particular lowlight, Torrey Craig outleaped four Jazz players, including Gobert, for a board and a crucial extra possession), and they all added up to the end result.
“It reminds me of [the rough stretch in] November when you get up and you’re like, ‘Alright, we’re here, they’re going to quit.’ They’re not going to quit,” Mitchell said. “We’re not playing a team that isn’t playing for anything. They’re playing for the same thing we are.”
Of course, Mitchell’s equally poor decision- and shot-making were partly culpable, as his late insistence upon forcing up bad looks led to myriad Denver run-outs and transition buckets. But then, many of his teammates weren’t much better.
Bojan Bogdanovic scored 16 points, but on 6-for-18 shooting. Clarkson was again solid off the bench (16 points on 6 of 7 from the floor), but the team’s other reserves combined for six points on a collective 2-for-10. Gobert had 16 points and 14 boards, but was frequently outmuscled and outhustled by Jokic. Mike Conley had another solid night (a team-high 21 points, plus eight rebounds, and five assists), but came up short on a go-ahead jumper attempt in the final seconds. And Joe Ingles was virtually invisible again, registering two points (on 1-for-4 shooting), three rebounds, and six assists.
Despite the Vivint crowd’s collective ennui over a game that shouldn’t have been close, it still never felt like the team might actually lose — right up until Jokic buried a fadeaway over Gobert in the final minute to put Denver ahead for good.
“This has been a team that when things are hard, we’ve dug in and worked harder and pushed through it,” Snyder said. “Sometimes that happens in practice and preparation — sometimes it has to happen in a game. And we certainly didn’t do that tonight.”
Gobert agreed the Jazz need to work harder, arguing that some collective complacency may have taken root during the stretch when they won 19 of 21 games against mostly inferior competition, and which is manifesting itself in the ugliest fashion now.
“You win 19 of 21, you think you’re a good team. And I think we are a really good team, but we kinda let that edge go a little bit,” he said. “We gotta understand that the No. 1 reason why we’re so good is because we play as a team and because we’re a tough team defensively. As long as we keep that, we stay together, and we keep that toughness, I’m pretty sure we can beat anyone.”