SALT LAKE CITY — Fans were leaving in droves midway through the fourth quarter on Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena because the outcome of the game between the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets had already been decided.
Unfortunately for Jazz fans, the game was far from the expected blowout in favor of the home team — despite the fact the struggling Nuggets had their two best players in street clothes due to injuries. Denver, the defending Northwest Division champion, halted a four-game losing streak with an improbable 105-95 victory despite being shorthanded.
All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups was out with a left adductor strain. All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony — the NBA's second-leading scorer — missed his first game of the season with a right knee contusion. Those two players average a combined 47.1 points, nine rebounds and nine assists between them.
Yet even without Billups and Anthony, the Nuggets earned the big divisional win.
Rookie point guard Ty Lawson and veteran center Nene stepped up and played at an All-Star level for the Nuggets in the absence of their usual stars.
"The basic game plan was to play hard and figure the game out as it happened," said Denver coach George Karl. "No one could write the script on how we were going to win tonight until the game got going. The energy was good. The intensity was great. The defense was good and we hung on and got a great win."
Lawson tied his career high with 23 points and added nine assists in 38 minutes of action in the place of Billups. Nene, meanwhile, scored 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field — which included mostly dunks and layups. His defense also helped cause many of the Jazz's 26 turnovers and he finished with six steals.
"I was glad to be able to help the team with the steals," said Nene, the one-named Brazilian veteran of seven NBA seasons.
"I can read where they pass, and I just used the moment and was happy to help the team get the victory."
J.R. Smith, the Nuggets' instant offense off the bench, scored 18 points, which is slightly better than his season average. He felt the Nuggets had to play a different, more open style without its top two players.
"Normally when Melo (Anthony) is playing it's pretty much 'Give the ball to Melo and let him make plays for us' and it's the same with Chauncey," said Smith. "So when they're not playing, we try to get the ball out in the open and everybody tried to make plays."
Lawson, the undersized guard who helped lead North Carolina to the NCAA title last season, has now played two strong games against the Jazz.
In the season-opener, he scored 17 points, which is nine points better than his current average. And now he has a 23-point game against Utah, too.
Karl, for one, likes what he's seen from his young playmaker.
"The kid has a great chance to be a great player," said Karl. "In the fourth quarter, (Lawson) made a big shot or a big pass just about whenever we needed it. ... He was in control of the game and that doesn't happen very often for anybody on this court. It's a tough place to play, but when you play like he did, it's a fun place to play."
It was a fun place to play for all the Nuggets on Saturday.
The same can't be said for the Jazz players, however.