SALT LAKE CITY — History tends to circle back, and there was a fair amount of it on display Wednesday. The story between the Nuggets and the Jazz is undeniably colorful and indisputably heated.
The latest version didn’t disappoint. A fierce scuffle broke out. A player from each team got ejected, while another from each received a technical. Meanwhile, those problems Rudy Gobert had with the refs in December were back.
So are the playoffs, in a sense.
The Jazz’s 114-108 over Denver win wasn’t your ordinary pre-All-Star snooze. It was two teams paying serious attention. Which is just what the Jazz need as they make their push for playoff position in the final one-third of the season.
How are they doing?
“Good,” Quin Snyder said before the game. “I feel like we were playing really, really well.”
His team played well enough against Denver to lead by 15 in the third quarter. The outcome wasn’t entirely certain until Donovan Mitchell sank one of two free throws with 41 seconds remaining.
The Nuggets are in the chase for the conference lead, despite providing the Jazz with their two best players — Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. The Jazz didn’t kowtow to a team they’ve been profiting from for awhile. They got strong contributions from two players that were once in the Nuggets’ grasp. In 2013, Rudy Gobert was drafted No. 27 by the Nuggets, but traded to Utah for the 46th pick, Erick Green and cash. Green is in Turkey, and the cash is going to pay for Nikola Jokic’s $147 million contract.
Meanwhile, the Jazz traded Trey Lyles to Denver in 2017 for the draft rights to Mitchell, who scored 35 points on Wednesday. Gobert had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Truth is the Nuggets are fearsome on the court, even without Gobert and Mitchell, having assembled a team that toggles between first and second place. The Nuggets came into Wednesday’s game at Vivint Arena just a game off the pace and 6 ½ games ahead of the Jazz.
A recent six-game streak jumped the Jazz from 14th in conference to eighth. That’s partly because few of the opponents in the Jazz’s streak are playoff-bound. That was a nice payback to the Jazz for playing the league’s most difficult first half of the season. Before Monday’s loss to Portland, the Jazz beat Orlando, both LA teams, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland in succession.
Not exactly the toughest crowd. But now the season has blended into a more rigorous test. Upcoming games include two against fairly dangerous Minnesota, and one apiece against Portland, Houston, San Antonio, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Brooklyn.
Instead of feasting on weaklings, they’ll have to have to put on their best (game) face.
Wednesday’s matchup with Denver was a great way to check their temperature. The Jazz’s was on the high side of normal. The Nuggets bring that out in them. When they met in November, the Nuggets rolled to a 103-88 win.
The Jazz-Nuggets series has been memorable, which makes for some intriguing updates. Denver was on the sour side of the biggest comeback in Jazz history — from 36 points in 1996. In 1984, a Denver columnist accused the Jazz of having no heart, after which the Jazz went on to win the series. In 1994, owner Larry H. Miller lunged at a Nuggets fan who had co-opted Miller’s courtside seats and taunted the team. Mehmet Okur’s career faded in Denver via a knee injury.
On Wednesday, trouble started in the first quarter when Derrick Favors and Denver’s Mason Plumlee tangled arms, then began shoving. Both were hit with technical and ejected. Additional technicals went to Jae Crowder and Will Barton.
Midway through the second quarter, Denver’s Nikola Jokic elbowed Gobert as he went up. No call sounded, except the one Gobert issued, gesturing that he had been elbowed three times.
As halftime neared, Crowder and Jokic went chest-to-chest after Jokic reversed a shot but was called for traveling.
It was a game that looked a lot like a playoff pairing.1 comment on this story
What the rest of the season promises is fuzzy. Last year, there was a burst of second-half excitement. But two other times the Jazz fell flat after this point in the season. In 2011, they were 27-17, resting in sixth place on Jan. 23, but finished the year in 11th place. The next season they were in third place, but finished eighth in the conference.
So the Jazz’s current playoff standing isn’t a guarantee.
Most years they’ve stayed about where they were in mid-January.
But, as Denver has shown, you don’t have to accept the past if you don’t like it.
And, as the Jazz showed Wednesday, you can love the moment you’re in.