Bojan Bogdanovic’s career-high 48 points carry Utah Jazz over Nuggets in playoff-like atmosphere

Utah pulls off a crucial 127-120 victory, rallying from an early double-digit deficit behind improving defense and the Croatian sharpshooter’s unconscious shooting.

Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) guards Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, May 7, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Given that the Jazz were missing some main guys and the Nuggets were missing some main guys, who knows if Friday night’s matchup at Vivint Arena actually means anything.

It felt like it meant something, though.

It felt like playoff atmosphere.

And if this 127-120 victory was a preview of what’s to come, there’s a lot for Utah to like.

Timely defense … clutch shooting …

And an absolutely incendiary Bojan Bogdanovic doesn’t hurt, either.

Yeah, the guy who shot 35% from the field for a whole month. The guy who went through a stretch where he struggled to put consecutive dribbles together without coughing up the ball. The guy who a sizable contingent of the fanbase was eager to send somewhere else at the trade deadline.

He’s taken the continuing absences of All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley as a personal challenge, and has, at times, seemed to almost single-handedly keep the team’s offense going by himself.

For the second straight game, he was operating at peak efficiency — though he dialed it up a few notches against the Nuggets.

The final carnage? A career-high 48 points on a ridiculous 16 for 23 from the field, 8 for 11 from beyond the arc, and a telling 8 of 8 at the stripe.

“What didn’t we see from him tonight? He really scored in every way possible,” said coach Quin Snyder. “He got stuff in transition, catch-and-shoot 3s, he scored off the dribble. … He’s just being aggressive, and he’s in a great place mentally.”

He didn’t do it all himself, of course.

Jordan Clarkson had another brilliant first quarter to help Utah erase an early double-digit deficit.

Trent Forrest’s chasedown block of a Facundo Campazzo layup attempt, and a Rudy Gobert rejection of a Nikola Jokic hook shot — both in the fourth quarter — provided huge swings of momentum.

Georges Niang capitalized on the late double-teams devoted to his frontcourt-mate by draining a few big 3s.

Gobert was clutch at the free-throw line.

The defense clamped down and limited Denver to a mere 21 points in the final period on 7-for-20 shooting.

But all night long, it was Bogdanovic doing the heavy lifting — keeping the Jazz close, then pushing them ahead, then keeping them there.

He scored 12 in the first quarter, 13 more in the second, a dozen more in the third … and a paltry 11 in the fourth, as Denver began to increasingly throw extra coverage at him.

Not that it did much good.

“I mean, it was just a big night. Every shot that I took, I thought that it was going in,” said Bogdanovic. “The team was really looking for me, all game long the coaching staff are trying to draw plays for me. So, a big night, like I said, and also, it’s a big, big win for us.”

Indeed, with the victory, the Jazz improved to 49-18 on the season and maintained their one-game advantage over the also-victorious Phoenix Suns in the race for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

That’s still down the road a bit, though. On Friday, on the front end of a back-to-back, it wasn’t all about Bogdanovic — but it wasn’t far off.

The veteran, who’s admitted to having his confidence shaken at times this season after undergoing surgery to his shooting wrist and struggling for prolonged stretches afterward, seems to be firing on all cylinders now.

“He’s stayed consistent with his approach,” said Snyder. “He’s a a heck of a player who had a great night. He’s made big shots and had big games to carry us before. And I don’t think anybody in that locker room is surprised.”

Gobert certainly wasn’t.

“Obviously, early in the season, because of his wrist, he was a little bothered and was maybe a little scared to play through contact. But the last few weeks, the last few months, he’s been attacking the rim and his finishing has been huge for us,” said the All-Star center. “When he’s able to put pressure on the rim, and shoot the way he always shoots, he’s probably one of the best scorers in the game.”

Niang wasn’t surprised, either.

“Obviously, we’re missing some guys, and it’s big for us to continue to keep it rolling, continue to be consistent, but, Bojan — you know, I’m lost for words because we know that he’s capable of this, and he’s just a fun-loving guy, and for him to have all this success, it’s amazing,” he said. “I don’t even know how to put the performance into words, because it just seemed like every shot he threw up there was just hitting the back of the net. And he deserves this — he works extremely hard, and I know he got some rough patches throughout this year, but everybody has their slumps, and it just shows how resilient he is.”

Bogdanovic tried to take it all in stride, but after a season of many ups and downs, this performance clearly meant a lot to him.

As he shot what would be the exclamation-point free throws, the Vivint crowd serenaded him with chants of “Bo-gey! Bo-gey! Bogey!”

And as the clock wound to triple zeroes and he put on the headset to do a walk-off interview with the team broadcaster, he was doused with water bottles by several teammates, including an ebullient Mitchell.

Afterward, though, in true Jazz fashion, he attempted to play down his individual accomplishment, noting that it really only mattered in the broader context of Utah’s fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s a big night, and I know that a career-high 48 is not easy to score,” Bogdanovic said, “but the most important thing is that we won a really, really big game.”