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Utah Jazz find a way to fight through low-energy slog and beat Denver for a fifth straight win

Utah’s increasing physicality alters the momentum on the glass and in defending Jamal Murray, paving the way for a 109-105 victory.

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson, front left, is trapped in the corner with the ball by Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris, front right, and center Isaiah Hartenstein in the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

In the first meeting between the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets since this past summer’s epic first-round playoff series, you might have expected hyper-competitiveness, back-and-forth scoring pyrotechnics, fiendish aggressiveness.

What you got instead, on Sunday night at Ball Arena, was a miscue-riddled, grimy slog.

But at least the Jazz emerged from the muck with a 109-105 victory — their fifth win in a row.

Quin Snyder said he “didn’t think we had our legs tonight,” on account of residual fatigue from their recently-completed six-game road trip, “but we played through it.”

Mike Conley, meanwhile, said there was no good reason for the low-energy effort, that it was just one of those inexplicable evenings when the team frequently did not have that higher gear, and they had to find ways to simply power through.

“I wish you could pinpoint it. I’ve done it a long time in this league and, you know, you can’t say it’s because we traveled to Denver, or altitude or anything like that — we’re used to playing at altitude. There’s some nights on back-to-backs where you feel worse on the first night than you do the second night,” he said. “Some games, the energy is low and it’s tough to grab it and find it. And this is one of those nights where we just had to grind it out and figure it out along the way.”

Pretty much.

Their performance left a lot to be desired:

• Jamal Murray, who lit them up in the postseason to rally Denver back from a three-games-to-one deficit, went off in the first half on Sunday, racking up 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting.

• The Nuggets were more spry on the boards, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, snatching up seven more in the first five minutes of the third quarter, and finishing with 23 total.

• Utah’s offense get alternately stagnant and sloppy whenever Conley went to the bench — as evidenced by five consecutive turnovers in a pivotal fourth-quarter stretch, as well as being plus-17 when he was on the court.

• An unperturbed 35-point, 14-rebound, nine-assist night from Nikola Jokic, who frequently did not even have shots challenged in going 14 of 23 from the field.

• A rim-rattling, head-scratching, face-palming 16-for-28 performance at the free-throw line.

But as it turned out, turning things around Sunday was not about finding the right matchup, or tweaking the play-calling, or adjusting a coverage. No, it was far simpler than that, in the end.

“Just doing it better. That’s the team we have to be. You know, it’s not always going to be sunshine and rainbows, where we execute the game plan 110%,” said Donovan Mitchell, who shook off a two-point, 1-for-10 shooting first half to finish with 18 points. “But we went out there and [it was] just exerting our will. Just finding ways to to win the game — by any means necessary.”

And that’s what they did.

With the likes of Conley, Mitchell, Royce O’Neale and Miye Oni all taking turns on Murray after halftime, he went scoreless in the third quarter and totaled only six second-half points on 2-for-11 shooting.

Snyder said it wasn’t a matter of doing anything differently, but rather recognizing “when you need to just do it better and do it harder and do longer. I thought our guys just really picked up their intensity.”

Same thing with their effort on the glass.

After the Nuggets grabbed those seven quick offensive rebounds in the first half of the third quarter, Utah’s players buttoned down their assignments and picked up their physicality.

“I mean, the scheme is to hit somebody on the glass and go after the ball and get it. … Sometimes it’s not about the scheme — it’s about your will,” Snyder added. “And that was what began to shift for us out of halftime. And then as the game wore on, I thought we started getting some more life.”

And so it was that the Jazz “did just enough to win the game,” in Snyder’s words.

It wasn’t pretty. It often wasn’t exciting. It showed that there’s plenty of work yet to do.

But it also showed that, even on a night when they were far from their best, the Jazz could still be good enough.

“It feels good. It says we’re hungry. We’re a better team than we were last year,” said Rudy Gobert, who finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks, and the game-clinching dunk with 1.4 seconds to play. “… I feel like we still haven’t reached the level that we can reach. But it’s great to get those wins, and we want to keep them rolling.”

JAZZ 109, NUGGETS 105

Key moment • With the Jazz up 107-105 with 4.3 seconds to play, they opted not to sub out Rudy Gobert on offense, despite his struggles at the stripe. The Nuggets forgot to guard him on the inbound, though, Royce O’Neale found him for a dunk, and that was that.

Big number: 6 • After Jamal Murray dropped 24 points on Utah in the first half, he managed only half a dozen after the break.

Up next • The Jazz return back home for the first of six straight games at Vivint Arena, and the first of two against the New Orleans Pelicans, which will take place Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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