That’s what we’ve talked about, is the bench being a strength and guys being ready and they were. —Quin Snyder
SALT LAKE CITY — For weeks now, we’ve heard about the wonderful depth the Utah Jazz enjoy this year and how the team would have to rely on defense all season following the loss of their two leading scorers from a year ago.
Both depth and defense were on display Wednesday night in Utah’s 106-96 opening-night victory over Denver when the Jazz fought back from a 15-point second-half deficit to start off the 2017-18 season and the reopening of Vivint Arena in grand fashion.
The Jazz second unit was absolutely dominant over a seven-minute stretch late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when it outscored the Nuggets by 20 points. Leading the way were Alec Burks, Thabo Sefolosha, and Ekpe Udoh, who helped flummox the Nuggets who had been on fire in the first half.
“Our bench Alec, Ekpe and Thabo in particular, those guys were terrific,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “I think we were persistent defensively — we talked about the defensive identity. We got better as the game went on and by and large that was Thabo and Ekpe and Derrick Favors as well.”
Except for a couple of 3-pointers by the Nuggets in the final 42 seconds, the Jazz would have held them to just seven points in the fourth quarter. That’s how stingy the Jazz were in the final 12 minutes. The Nuggets nearly had more turnovers than points in the final quarter as 10 of their 21 turnovers came in the final quarter.
The key stretch of the game began with 1:57 left in the third quarter, when the Jazz inserted Epke Udoh, giving the Jazz five reserves in the game in Alec Burks, Joe Johnson, Thabo Sefolosha and Donovan Mitchell, technically not a reserve, since he was a last-second starter for Rodney Hood.
With that group in the game except for a few minutes when Favors replaced Johnson early in the fourth quarter, the Jazz went on a 25-5 run that lasted until the 7-minute mark of the fourth quarter when Snyder put his starters back in. At that point the 81-71 deficit had turned into a 96-86 lead.
“That’s what we’ve talked about, is the bench being a strength and guys being ready and they were,” said Snyder.
Earlier in Jazz camp, the 6-10 Udoh, who was the MVP of the Euroleague playoffs this past season, had declared himself one of the “best defensive players in the world.” He showed it during his 13 minutes of action as he blocked three shots and forced a couple of turnovers to help lead the Jazz comeback.
“I just come in and bring that energy off the bench and be there for my teammates,” Udoh said. “We just needed that dose of energy. I know defensively I’m going to be all over the place and I’ve got to give that for my team. We were able to get stops and then we were able to run and converting. That’s where we’re going to hang our hats.”
The Jazz finished with six players in double figures as Rudy Gobert ended up leading the Jazz in scoring with 18 points, while Burks was next with 16, followed by Favors with 14. Ricky Rubio had 10 assists and nine points.
The key numbers for the night were the plus-minus – the difference in points when individual players were on the court. Sefolosha ended up plus-25, followed by Udoh at plus-24 and Mitchell at plus-22.
Denver coach Mike Malone gave credit to the Jazz defense during that key stretch and late in the third and early in the fourth said it was key to his team’s loss.
“I thought what happened is they just turned up the pressure, became a lot more aggressive, became more physical and we did a poor job of handling that,” he said.
Now it’s off to Minnesota, where the Jazz will play the Timberwolves Friday night.