It doesn’t matter who it’s going against . . . another game in the books for me. Luckily it was against them. —Nuggets forward Trey Lyles
DENVER — When Trey Lyles was traded away from the Jazz last summer, no one seemed to care that much because the Jazz were able to move up in the NBA Draft to snag Donovan Mitchell. Then when Mitchell turned out to be better than anyone ever dreamed, Lyles became a forgotten man.
After the way Lyles torched Utah Friday night, the Jazz may have second thoughts about letting Lyles go.
The 6-10 forward from Kentucky scored a career-high 26 points and led the Nuggets to their second blowout of the Jazz in 10 days with a 99-91 victory Friday night at the Pepsi Center.
Don’t let the final score deceive you. The Nuggets outscored the Jazz 38-16 in the third quarter and led by 18 with three minutes left before the Jazz made a couple of late baskets to make the final margin respectable. With the win, Denver improved to 21-17, while the Jazz fell to 16-23 with their 12th loss in their last 15 games.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder blamed his team’s poor play in the third quarter after a first half when the Jazz played one of their better defensive halves of the year in limiting Denver to 46 points.
“Whether it’s the third quarter or fourth quarter, there are stretches, it happened to be the third quarter tonight, where we’re not as connected and determined as we need to be,” he said. “There are runs that happen and we have to be able to stop those runs, get to the foul line or get a defensive rebound. There’s a level of mental toughness when a team’s going on a run and we have to stop the run.”
Lyles and fellow Canadian Jamal Murray combined for 52 points in the victory with 26 points apiece, while leading scorer Gary Harris was held to 13 and Will Barton scored 12 off the bench. Murray hurt the Jazz early when he made eight of his first nine shots and Lyles’ points came in bunches.
After the Jazz took a 26-23 lead after the first quarter, Lyles came out smoking, scoring eight quick points in the first two minutes and four more in the next two minutes to give Denver a 37-29 lead. In the second half he helped fuel the late third-quarter run with back-to-back baskets to put the Nuggets up 73-61.
Snyder was full of praise for his former player and the Nuggets for giving him an opportunity.
“Trey’s got an opportunity to play right now and he’s taken advantage of it,” he said. “We felt he’s a really good player and I’m happy to see him playing well. I wish we would have done better against him tonight. Obviously what they’re doing here in Denver, he’s embraced it. He’s playing really well and that’s a credit to him and a credit to the Nuggets coaching staff and the way he’s blossomed the way he has right now.”
Lyles downplayed any extra motivation for playing so well against the team that traded him away. When he was interviewed on the court after the game, he said, he was “a little” motivated to play against his old team. Then in the locker room, he contradicted himself when talking about playing his former team.
“It doesn’t matter who it’s going against . . . another game in the books for me,” he said. But a couple of seconds later he said. “Luckily it was against them.”
Denver coach Mike Malone gave Lyles credit for his team’s second-quarter surge and his all-around play.
“He had a great second quarter,” Malone said. “He showed his ability to score from the perimeter by hitting four threes and then play off the dribble on his post up. There’s not a lot of things Trey Lyles can’t do offensively.”
Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio led the Jazz with 15 points apiece, while Derrick Favors scored 14 and Rodney Hood had 12 off the bench. Thabo Sefolosha, who got the start at the four spot, scored 10 points and Joe Ingles had nine points and nine assists.
Now the Jazz will head to the East Coast for three games, beginning Sunday afternoon in Miami. Then they’ll move up the coast to play Washington Wednesday night and conclude the nine-day road trip with a game at Charlotte on Friday night.