SALT LAKE CITY – The game lacked star power. It didn’t lack drama.
It didn’t matter that Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert all missed Wednesday’s affair with various injuries. The game – a 108-104 Nuggets loss – was gripping nonetheless, even if it ended Denver’s 4-2 road trip on a sour note.
Jazz point guard Mike Conley banked in a clutch 3-pointer with 2:08 remaining, and the Nuggets committed two costly turnovers on ensuing possessions to undermine the result. Zeke Nnaji missed a 3-pointer with a few seconds remaining, but the Nuggets still would’ve trailed by one had it dropped.
“The inability to sit down and guard and shrink the floor, that was one big thing,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “The second was, second half, we had 11 turnovers for 16 points. Close game, on the road, undermanned, those are just so valuable.”
The effort, while Jokic rested due to a sore right toe, was there. Arguably, the Nuggets’ bench played better than the starters. Led by Bryn Forbes’ 26 points, Davon Reed’s 13 and Bones Hyland’s 10, the Nuggets’ reserves racked up 57 points in total. Starters Will Barton and Monte Morris combined for 29 points but took 29 shots to get there. Barton’s five turnovers stalled his productivity.
But Conley and company came in waves, attacking Denver’s vulnerabilities inside. The Jazz poured in 64 points in the paint, and finished with six guys in double figures.
Now 28-23 on the season, the Nuggets finally head home where they’ll meet the Pelicans on Friday.
It took until the third quarter, but finally the pace reflected all the game’s missing stars. Denver’s offensive deteriorated into dribble-heavy offensive sets, while Utah kept playing downhill. The backcourt of Will Barton, Austin Rivers and Morris stopped sharing the ball as had been a staple of the Nuggets’ offense in the first half.
The offense thawed once Denver went back to its bench. Forbes and Hyland each connected from outside to keep the margin close. Utah outscored Denver 22-18 in the third and carried a slim 82-79 lead into the fourth.
Road weary and exhausted, Malone had run the emotional gamut the last week.
“The last couple of days is what the NBA’s all about,” he said. “You go from the euphoria of a great win in Milwaukee where you play great basketball and then two days later, you talk about the agony of defeat, getting your butts kicked in Minnesota. … As has happened three different occasions this year, we’re getting the Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back, and they’re just hanging out waiting for us.”
Despite the circumstances, Denver’s reserves – some of them deep reserves – seized their opportunities in the first half against Utah. The Nuggets carried a 61-60 lead into the break thanks to 33 points from Denver’s bench. The support was a far cry from the production Malone got in Tuesday’s blowout loss to Minnesota.
Forbes and Reed were outstanding, together knocking in six of the Nuggets’ nine first-half 3-pointers. As Forbes caught fire, the Nuggets kept featuring him. He poured in a team-high 13 points over the first two quarters. Reed, who’s played sparingly since Forbes’ addition, added 11.
Among the starters, Morris was the most aggressive and hunted for his spots. Whether attacking the rim or finding space in the mid-range, Morris tallied 11 in the first half. The production was to the delight of Jokic, who stood and applauded throughout the half as his teammates hung tough.