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Recap: Nuggets outlast Jazz in epic bubble duel, 134-132

SB Nation logo SB Nation 8/8/2020 Gordon Gross
a person holding a basketball © Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz started out as a snoozer, with Utah racing to a big lead, and then wound up as an double-overtime classic. Denver pulled out the win in dramatic fashion, 134-132. Turning his back on the “rest his important players” approach from the previous game where Jokic sat out the final 16 minutes in a loss, coach Michael Malone rode his starters hard in this one with 136 combined minutes for Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in this two point victory. All three were terrific for Denver in the second half after rough starts for MPJ and Jokic, dragging Denver to a stubbon victory. Rudy Gobert was good in the first half but far out-played by Jokic in the second, fouling out at the end of regulation. Donovan Mitchell was spectacular with 35 points, but it took him 33 shots and Utah came up a play or two - and probably another favorable ref whistle - from victory.

Denver and Utah traded buckets for the first few minutes, but the play was sloppy. Rudy Gobert’s drive down the middle for a layup was matched by a Torrey Craig 3 to make it 7-7 with four minutes gone. A Nikola Jokic turnover turned into a Mike Conley 3, then a turnover from Jamal Murray had the same result as Denver looked rusty and out of sync with Murray back on the court for the first time in a while. Millsap completed a tough paint finish, then drew a charge on Gobert. But Denver kept getting whistled on the offensive end and were unable to capitalize. Denver trailed 24-15 when Jokic came off the floor and lost ground from there. Denver made 6 field goals, Utah went 5-of-11 from 3 in the first period and took a double digit lead, 29-15.

Niang and Monte Morris exchanged threes to start the second quarter. Plumlee hit a skyhook, PJ Dozier finished two transition drives, but Plumlee fouled Clarkson on a 3. Grant swished a three though as Denver climbed within 9, 38-29. MPJ and Murray couldn’t buy a triple, though, while Clarkson kept swishing them. Denver went back up 49-32 nearly halfway through the quarter. Jokic and Murray both netted buckets but also butchered plays. Jokic had two touch fouls on a driving Gobert, the same as his point total, but found his assist touch around the basket in the last couple of minutes. Denver played Utah to a draw in that period behind Jerami Grant and Jamal Murray’s double digit performances in the half, but still trailed 63-49.

Denver came out of the half with Jokic swinging ball to Porter for a three and Jokic scoring through a double team in the paint. Jokic drained two threes to cut the deficit to seven, 67-60. MPJ skied for a rebound and putback on a Jokic miss, while Gobert and Jokic went at each other on both ends. Jokic and Murray got more comfortable with each other, working the pick and roll and screen game with intermittent success. Murray sat with 4 minutes to go (and putting up 10 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists to that point in his first game back) and MPJ immediately got a dunk off a steal and made Utah foul him in transition. Denver cut it to 76-72 before a Donovan Mitchell three, but as Jokic also took a rest the Utah lead climbed back to 88-79 at the end of 3.

Porter swished a shot off a Plumlee screen to start the fourth, then bullied his way to an off-the-glass bucket in transition.

Denver picked up the energy on defense as their shots fell and Monte Morris swished a three to get it within 2 points. Plumlee tied the game at 88, then Denver traded buckets with Jokic on the bench. Monte Morris had a great baseline drive, but Denver still strugged from the three point line, which remained the difference, but Gobert was unable to pull Utah ahead as he struggled from the foul line. MPJ grabbed a rebound, Murray made a beautiful drive through traffic, and Denver tied the score at 98 with 2 minutes to go. Murray’s fadeaway from a Jokic pass finally gave Denver the lead back 100-98. Murray finished a transition bucket paint-to-paint with a behind-the-back dribble as Utah’s offense completely collapsed in the fourth. Some problematic referee calls didn’t help Denver in the closing seconds though, with a phantom foul called on Jamal when he won a loose ball over Donovan Mitchell and an entry pass called out of bounds off Denver when Joe Ingles smashed MPJ’s wrist on the pass. Mitchell hit a three over Torrey Craig to make it 104-103 Denver. Grant hit one of two free throws, Mitchell hit a layup with 1 second left and the game went to overtime at 105.

Denver came out angry. Jokic scored in the paint over Mitchell, then grabbed the rebound on a Mitchell miss. The Nuggets missed a couple of set shots, Utah couldn’t buy a three, and Jokic cut to the basket off a Craig rebound to put Denver up 4. Grant blocked Gobert, Murray scored in transition off a goaltend, and Denver stayed stifling on defense. A no-call on a foul on Murray led to a Conley bucket on the other end. Jokic hit a shot over Gobert, Mitchell hit a drive with a foul called on MPJ, and the game tightened up to 113-111 Denver. Jokic scored over Gobert again in the paint, but Utah’s three point shot made a reappearance after taking much of the second half off, and another Mitchell three gave Utah the lead 117-115. Gobert fouled out on a Jokic pivot sequence, and Jokic’s two icy free throws tied it again. Mitchell beat PJ Dozier off the dribble for a lead, then Jokic answered for Denver - but the clock operator didn’t start the clock. After a lengthy review they determined that Jokic’s basket counted and (after even more clock issues causing a second in-bounds from Utah) the teams went to double overtime at 119.

Both teams scrapped to start the quarter. A foul from MPJ led to free throws for Tony Bradley, and Murray airballed a three as his legs looked fatigued. More poor referee calls had to be reviewed, but an exhausted Murrray hit a step-back three to put Denver up five.

A missed three for Ingles led to an MPJ rebound and put Porter at the line, where he made both. Conley hit a three to close to 4, but an amazing baseline dunk off a Murray assist make it 132-126 Denver with 22.2 seconds left. With their third 6 point lead at the end of regulation or in overtime, Denver paid this one off despite more Mitchell three-point heroics and took the back-and-forth contest 134-132.

Takeaways:

- Jokic can be too generous. In the first half Jokic was screening and passing but not looking to score. The team didn’t shoot well enough for him to get assists because he wasn’t creating them, he was just passing to players who were missing. Jokic respects his teammates and believes that the open shot is always the correct one, and thus finished with just 2 points in the half. He put up 14 points in the 3rd quarter but Denver can’t afford for him to take passive halves off in the playoffs. Hopefully he got that out of his system after halftime today.

- MPJ and Murray haven’t played together much, and it’s obvious. Neither is sure where the other wants them to be, and some of the cutting actions that MPJ favored in other games disappeared in the first half for Denver as he strictly played the perimeter. Murray is used to calling his own number or playing off of Jokic; having a giant wing scorer is something he hasn’t experienced in Denver. But there are signs that this idea of a Big Three can work for the Nuggets. There was a beautiful moment in the second half where Murray faked a pass to MPJ, drawing two defenders in his position, and freeing up Craig for a cut and hoop. Murray passed to Jokic who went for the shot with MPJ cleaning up the miss. These are the things that Denver will need to become second nature: two scorers playing together, learning each others habits and favorite tendencies, and using those things against their opponents.

- Denver needs to learn how to close with their newer lineups. They had two different 6 points leads at the end of regulation and overtime and blew both of them. Close games are where gaps show up. Where it becomes obvious that Jokic and Murray aren’t used to looking for MPJ in those situations, and that Denver’s defensive rotations are not crisp. It’s not a long-term issue. Denver may have three players with ice in their veins and a lot of fight in their entire squad. Murray likes big moments, Jokic is perhaps the best closer in the game, and Porter came to play in the second half with key scores and rebounds. Denver’s bench came back with 38 regular-time points, showing just as they did against Portland that this team is not just its stars, despite mismatched lineups and end-of-bench players pressed into rotation minutes. But none of that matters if Denver can’t eke out these wins. Denver did at last in this one, and maybe that’s the teaching moment they needed.

- Michael Malone needs to not talk out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to resting players and taking care of them. Jokic had to “rest” at the end of the Portland game despite already playing 24 minutes and his team having the lead with under 6 minutes to go. MPJ has consistently played 30+ and got 45 minutes today after 30+ in each of his previous bubble games, things his body has not even tried to do this year. Jamal Murray, in his first game back from a hamstring injury that has kept him out the whole restart, played 39 minutes. Jokic played 42. Hell, Grant had 47 and there were 4 DNPs on the roster.

If that game doesn’t matter, why did this one? If walking away from a victory against Portland because of rest is fine, then why did Murray play 4 quarters and 2 overtimes in this similarly unimportant game, to the point he airballed a three and missed both free throws in the waning seconds of the last OT? Malone decided on pushing Murray’s health and MPJ’s previous limits for these less-meaningful regular season games, and he needs to figure out what exactly his goal is with the two different approaches to these games - and whether it’s worth it. If Murray reinjures that hamstring before the playoffs then Denver’s title hopes likely go with it.

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