The Nuggets might have Kyle Korver nightmares Thursday night.
It’s possible Donovan Mitchell makes an appearance as well.
The Utah Jazz duo demoralized the Nuggets’ thrilling fourth-quarter comeback attempt with devastating corner 3-pointers and improbable driving layups, ultimately snapping the Nuggets’ five-game winning streak with a 111-104 victory.
Paul Millsap drained his second 3-pointer of the night to make it 104-101 with 1:14 remaining before Mitchell responded with a clutch jumper to silence the rowdy Pepsi Center crowd.
That it even got that close – the Nuggets were down 17 with 6:02 remaining – was a testament to their resiliency on a night when MVP candidate Nikola Jokic was hardly himself. Jazz center and Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert got the best of Jokic, holding him to 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
The loss dropped the Nuggets to 42-19 and kept Denver a half game behind Golden State for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Mitchell, who scored nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, was the primary culprit, though Korver’s six 3-pointers hurt nearly as much.
“They do a great job of spreading you out,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Multiple effort, flying around and Korver’s just so good. He hits a 3 off a baseline out of bounds play. You can be there, you can get a good contest, he still makes tough shots.”
Jamal Murray and Will Barton, who each finished with 21 points, were sensational in the third quarter, each successive basket seemingly harder than the last. Murray hit two 3-pointers, but it was Barton’s energy that let the Nuggets hack into an 18-point third quarter deficit. Barton played the entire quarter, scoring 13 to keep the Nuggets within striking distance. He also hounded Mitchell during a driving layup attempt and swatted his shot off the backboard. That momentum swing was quickly undermined when Mitchell drained a 3-pointer to end the third and reestablish a double-digit lead.
After Tuesday’s huge win over division rival Oklahoma City, Murray said he and his teammates were making a concerted effort to be “greedy” as they rack up wins down the stretch and push for the No. 1 seed.
“Just not getting satisfied with being on a five-game win streak, not getting complacent,” Murray said earlier on Thursday. “Still go in there playing hard like we just lost five straight.”
It wasn’t until the second half that Denver woke up.
The Nuggets owned the NBA’s best defensive rating throughout their five-game winning streak. Malone said that success boiled down to defending the 3-point line.
“We’ve won five in a row, and a big part of that five in a row is having the No. 1 defense during that time, and when you dig into those numbers, it’s holding teams to 26 percent from the 3-point line,” Malone said. “When we lose, we give up a lot of threes. And not only percentage but a large volume of threes.”
Utah was 16 for 43 from the 3-point line Thursday night.
Neither team found much rhythm throughout a disjointed first half, though Utah looked like it played significantly harder for stretches. The Jazz opened the second quarter on a 13-2 run before Murray drained a 3-pointer from the wing to momentarily halt Utah’s momentum. It wasn’t much as the Jazz outscored the Nuggets 33-15 in the second and carried a 52-37 lead into half.
The Nuggets’ offense, still adjusting to the number of healthy bodies they’ve recently returned, looked out of sync as Malone tinkered with substitutions to try and find a working combination. Denver managed just 1 of 13 from the 3-point line, as no one outside of Murray found much success.
The highlight of the first half came off an unbelievable chase down block from Barton, who swatted Grayson Allen’s two-handed dunk attempt with just inches to spare.
Isaiah Thomas, who checked in several minutes after Gary Harris and Monte Morris, looked like he was searching for his offense during a rough second-quarter stint. He said as recently as Tuesday that he’s still a work in progress after missing 11 months due to hip surgery.