SALT LAKE CITY — As Ricky Rubio was finishing talking to the media Wednesday night, Donovan Mitchell grabbed his phone and started playing “Welcome Back” by Mase.
“Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back,” rang through the Utah locker room as Mitchell smiled and bobbed his head.
It was for Rubio’s return to the Utah Jazz starting lineup, but maybe there was another, unintended, meaning. On Wednesday, a playoff-like atmosphere returned to the Vivint Arena in Utah’s 114-108 win over Denver. And it was nice to have back.
There were scuffles between the teams, a fired up crowd and stars playing like stars. And it was Mitchell who shined the brightest.
How many moves does the young guard have in his bag of tricks? Denver never saw the end of them Wednesday night.
There was the spin move before stepping around a defender. The hesitation dribble crossover. The freezing the defender before stepping into a 3-pointer. And many, many, many more.
Mitchell scored 35 points on 12-for-25 shooting and added 6 assists and 6 rebounds. He is now averaging 27.7 points per game in January — and it's getting pretty late in the month.
“This is what you see when you get a good player who is developing and getting better,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
And Wednesday’s intense contest is what you get when you have two teams who consider themselves among the West’s elite matched up in a nationally televised game. And also two teams who apparently don’t like each other.
In the first quarter, Derrick Favors was approached by Mason Plumlee after the pair got a little tied up going after a loose ball. Favors didn't respond happily to that. The Jazz forward aggressively pushed Plumlee away setting off a big scuffle between the two teams. The altercation led to both Favors and Plumlee getting ejected and Royce O'Neale and Will Barton each getting technical fouls.
“The home team, the majority of the time, fuels off it more,” Jae Crowder said of the altercation. “That’s what happened tonight. I felt like we wanted to have (Favors’) back. When you have an altercation like that, the teammates have to have his back and we were there for him.”
Both in the squabble and afterward. The scuffle sparked even more energy into the game. The players felt it; the crowd felt it. This game was a little different than a normal regular season contest.
“It was a good one,” Kyle Korver said. “Two good teams both playing in front of the basketball, getting up and down. There are a couple of strong personalities on both sides and makes for a great Wednesday night game.”
By the end of the contest, Denver’s Nikola Jokic was receiving hearty boos each time he touched the ball. It wasn’t just because he was busy putting put up 28 points and 21 rebounds in an impressive performance against, either. Jokic was constantly in Utah player’s faces, including trying to bait Crowder into a shoving match not long after Favors and Plumlee were ejected.
It all led to a very heated game — and one that had plenty of big-time plays to match the intensity of the crowd.
There was Mitchell side-stepping around defenders and ripping the nets with a 6-for-10 3-point shooting night. There was Crowder banking in a corner 3-pointer in the fourth — while getting fouled. And there was Rudy Gobert forcing a missed shot at the rim with under a minute to go as the Nuggets made a late push.
And there was Rubio’s welcome back party, too. Rubio scored 17 points and had 6 assists in his first start back from injury. He had 8 points and 3 assists in the first five minutes of the game. That was part of a hot offensive start for the Jazz who set a new franchise-record by hitting 13 3-pointers in the first half.
Utah improved to 27-22 with the win.