SALT LAKE CITY — Denver head coach Michael Malone had to look at some rules before Wednesday’s game at Utah.
With the Nuggets facing numerous injuries and a pending trade keeping players out, he was looking at a pretty thin roster — really thin.
“I’ve never been a part of a game where you could potentially only have seven guys suiting up,” Malone said before tipoff. “It got to the point today, I even looked up the rules within the staff meeting to see what happens if you’re down to five guys and a player fouls out and how does the NBA handle that.
“So, hopefully we don’t get into any bizarre scenarios tonight, we can get through this game relatively unscathed, and walk out of here feeling good about ourselves.”
They left feeling really good about themselves.
The Nuggets came into Salt Lake City on the back end of a back-to-back, playing their third game in four nights, and had just seven players available — one of whom, Vlatko Cancar, had never played more than five minutes in an NBA game.
Yet, the Nuggets won anyway.
Nikola Jokic’s 19-foot stepback jumper with 59 seconds left ended up being the game-winner as Denver shocked the Jazz 98-95 Wednesday at Vivint Arena.
It was Utah’s fifth straight loss, dropping the team’s record to 32-18 on the season.
The Nuggets’ roster situation was such that Malone even joked about sending a nice gift to Utah head coach Quin Snyder ahead of the game almost as a peace offering. It was like he had accepted Denver’s likely fate.
“I’m gonna try to send Quin a nice bottle of wine and see what the night brings,” Malone said.
Now, he might need to get another for a celebration.
The Jazz were well-rested and had a fully healthy roster; they were outhustled down the stretch by a team that could barely field a legal roster.
They should have been more prepared for big runs after giving them up in their previous two games (one of which was to this same Denver team); the Nuggets went on a 20-4 run to erase a 15-point Utah second-half lead.
And they should have felt the urgency to finish off the game after losing four straight; the Nuggets closed on an 18-5 run to leave Salt Lake with arms held high in celebration and the Jazz again searching for answers.
“I’ve said this a lot recently, but this is our new best win of the year,” Malone said.
Replace “best win” with “worst loss,” and the Jazz could say the same thing. It’s hard to think of a worse loss than the one Utah took on Wednesday.
It continued a trend of losing to shorthanded teams who come to Salt Lake on back-to-backs (Oklahoma City and Houston have come before). It continued a trend of allowing players to go off — Jamal Murray had 31 points and Jokic had 30 for Denver. It continued a trend of long periods of bad decision-making and poor focus.
In the third quarter, Donovan Mitchell cleared out and left Mike Conley with a one-on-one opportunity on Jokic. A stutter step, a quick step back and buried three later, Conley was strolling — no, he was strutting — down the court.
From that point on, the Nuggets outscored the Jazz 42-24.
“There were times tonight, we had moments where we were playing well,” Snyder said. “And then we had moments where we weren’t very good at all. That type of inconsistency is not going to translate to wins.”
Outside of Murray and Jokic (who also had 21 rebounds and 10 assists), the Nuggets were far from special. They shot 23.3% from the 3-point line, and Gary Harris was 0-of-13 from the field. But it didn’t matter. Especially when the Jazz closed like they did.
When Mitchell hit a jumper with 3:20 left, it gave Utah a 4-point lead. But those were the last Jazz points of the game. Utah committed four turnovers in the final 2:36 of the game and only had three more shot attempts the rest of the way. That allowed the Nuggets to close on a 7-0 run.
“We just had too many turnovers, too many breakdowns to where we wouldn’t get opportunities at the rim,” Conley said. “That leads to a loss.”
Conley led the Jazz with 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists. But he missed a floater with 8.2 seconds left that would have given the Jazz the lead, and had a late-game turnover.
Mitchell struggled to an 18-point night on 8-of-24 shooting and had two turnovers in the closing minutes. Bojan Bogdanovic had 16 points, five assists and five rebounds but missed two 3-pointers in the final minutes, including a deep one at the buzzer that would have tied the game.
With that miss, it was assured that Malone wouldn’t need his newly learned knowledge on Wednesday. It turns out seven players were enough after all.