SALT LAKE CITY — For the greater part of three quarters Wednesday night, the Denver Nuggets were starting to taste what would have been an impressive opening night victory on the road over a potential playoff team.
Sixth-man Will Barton had paced Denver with 21 first-half points, Gary Harris was a crisp 5-7 from the field and piecing together a typical efficient game like the third-year shooting guard is prone to do, and even Paul Millsap, who is still finding himself within Denver’s free-flowing offensive system, had poured in 16 points and seemed to be meshing well with frontcourt mate Nikola Jokic.
But then, what could only be described as a second-half collapse doomed Denver in their regular-season opener.
It started with a Derrick Favors mid-range jumper at the 7:36 mark of the third quarter. The Nuggets were up by 15, 70-55 and seemed like they were on the verge of pulling away. However, what followed was a 23-13 run over the remainder of the frame with Joe Johnson adding the exclamation mark — a 25-foot bank shot from the angle at the buzzer that sent the near-capacity crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena into a frenzy.
Then in the fourth, Utah hit Denver like an avalanche bearing down from nearby Park City. The Jazz erupted for a 22-3 run that stunned the Nuggets and left Denver rattled.
“I think they just wanted it more,” Barton said. “They picked up the pressure and we kind of folded.”
Nothing seemed to go right for Denver over that end of the third stretch that spilled over into the better part of the final quarter. Shots that had fallen all game were suddenly clanging off the iron, passes that were there for three quarters were getting picked off left and right.
“What happened tonight was it was a snowball effect,” Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone said after the loss. “We got down, guys started doing things more themselves instead of trusting each other, and we got ourselves into trouble.”
By the time Denver came up for air midway through the fourth after Malone’s second called timeout within roughly two minutes, the margin was just nine and seemingly within reach. But Utah kept coming. Alec Burks shot 5-6 from the field in the second half, Derrick Favors hit five of his nine field goal attempts, and as a team, the Jazz went 5-11 from deep and shot 54.1 percent from the field in the fourth.
Utah generated ten Denver turnovers that quarter, two of which were caused by defensive stalwart Thabo Sefolosha, who played key second-half minutes for the Jazz.
“They turned it up, we didn’t,” Millsap said from his locker postgame. “I think for three quarters we did an amazing job on both ends of the court. Offensively, we did what we wanted to do. And I think towards the end of the third quarter and fourth quarter we fell apart.”
The Nuggets wasted a memorable first two quarters from Barton, who was a perfect 7-7 from the field until his first and only miss of the half that came at the 2:08 mark in the second.
Over those first two quarters, Barton was electric. He supplied Denver with nearly all their offense, dished out a pair of assists and only committed one turnover. He manned the point for the Nuggets’ second unit and captained Denver’s offense over a productive first half.
“Will Barton had a great first half,” Malone said. “Obviously, he carried us.”
But Barton scored just two points over the game’s final two quarters. As Utah’s defense keyed in on the rangy wing, which included rookie Donovan Mitchell face-guarding Barton and denying him the ball for stretches. Denver’s offense sputtered to a halt.
“It’s hard when you gotta go in in the first half and you’re coming off the bench and it’s a kind of a long wait until you get back in the third quarter and now I’m just trying to play good basketball, not rush it, trying to get a feel for it again, not trying to cost my team anything,” Barton said of his second-half struggles. “And then, the fourth. We’re down and I’m trying to make plays. It’s kind of like a way you feel, but there’s no excuse for that.”
Nikola Jokic, who had a quiet game but nearly tallied a triple-double, finished with seven points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists. He didn’t score in the second half and looked winded at times.
“They turned up the pressure, became a lot more aggressive, a lot more physical,” Malone said. “And we did a poor job handling that…We couldn’t score, we couldn’t execute, we couldn’t value the ball and that led to them getting whatever they wanted on the offensive end.”
Now how does Denver rebound?
It’s just one game, and Utah’s home crowd has spooked relatively young teams like the Nuggets before. Malone and his players could tell a Jazz run was coming — all quality teams have at least one within them per game. But Denver could never find an answer. The Nuggets, who controlled the game for most of three quarters, were just a few fourth-quarter possessions away from sealing an impressive opening night win.
“Good teams don’t beat themselves,” Malone said as he apologized for the often-used cliche. “And tonight we came on the road, three pretty good quarters and the fourth quarter we just imploded.”