Two days before Christmas, the Nuggets held the sharpshooting defending champion Golden State Warriors to an ice-cold 3-of-27 performance from beyond the 3-point line. Less than 24 hours before that, Denver handled a Portland team without star point guard Damian Lillard.
Coach Michael Malone had hoped his team did not turn satisfied over a two-day holiday respite, that the Nuggets would keep their sense of urgency against a Northwest division foe that had already thumped Denver twice this season.
So the Nuggets again leaned on their defense against Utah, holding the Jazz to its second-lowest shooting performance of the season in a 107-83 victory Tuesday night at Pepsi Center.
“To do it three games in a row, to defend at that kind of level, is outstanding,” Malone said. “I thought the defense was phenomenal (positions) 1 through 5, no matter who we put in a game.
“When we value the ball like that and we defend the way we’re defending, I don’t think there’s a team in this league that we cannot beat.”
It was Denver’s third consecutive game holding an opponent to less than 85 points, the first time the Nuggets have accomplished that feat since 2013. Utah’s 32.1 field-goal percentage was the lowest for a Denver opponent since 2014. That defensive effort pushed the Nuggets’ record to 12-3 at home and 19-15 overall, their best through 34 games since the 2010-11 season.
What has sparked the recent defensive surge for a team that last season was dreadful on that end of the floor and entered Tuesday with middle-of-the-pack statistical marks?
After toggling through starting lineups following injuries of varying severity to Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic and Wilson Chandler, the Nuggets have deployed a big first group with Jokic and Mason Plumlee manning the frountcourt, Chandler locking down the wing and Harris maintaining his stout play on the perimeter. Malone gave a heavy dose of credit to assistant Wes Unseld, a “tireless worker” who has “a lot of leeway to take control of the defense.” Players, meanwhile, have a renewed awareness of defensive importance after surrendering double-digit second-half leads at Oklahoma City and against Minnesota before this three game-winning streak.
“We’re just holding each other accountable,” said reserve big man Trey Lyles, who narrowly missed a double-double with 16 points and eight rebounds against his former team. “We’re rotating … we’re just running guys off the (3-point) line and trying to rebound. We were able to lock down and kind of contain them.”
Added starting point guard Jamal Murray: “Just communication (and) guys being more aggressive play after play. Just forcing (opposing players) into tough passes, tough shots and guys being in the right spots … we kind of know what teams are gonna do, and we did a good job of anticipating that.”
During Tuesday night’s first half, the Nuggets held the Jazz (15-20) under 30 percent from the floor and to 34 points to build a double-digit lead they never relinquished. Denver most notably curtailed rookie standout and Jazz leading scorer Donovan Mitchell, who finished with 13 points (six in the fourth quarter when the outcome was all but decided) on 5-of-10 shooting after previously totaling 29 points against Oklahoma City. The Nuggets out-rebounded the Jazz 53-42 and limited Utah to 34 points in the paint, 10-of-35 from 3-point distance and to two fastbreak points.
And unlike its previous two contests against the Jazz, Denver did not come unglued following halftime or down the stretch. Instead, they quickly grew their lead after intermission, when Plumlee followed a Jokic spin and finish with a reverse dunk to make the score 62-41 less than four minutes into the third quarter. Malone attributed that to Denver’s 10 turnovers for eight points, a dramatic improvement over the 20 turnovers for 29.5 points the Nuggets had averaged in their two losses to the Jazz.
That offensive attack, meanwhile, was balanced. Murray scored 13 of his 22 points in the first quarter to go along with eight rebounds. Harris totaled 15 points and five assists, while Chandler scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half and added seven rebounds. Jokic finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists before being ejected early in the fourth quarter after being called for a Flagrant 2 foul.
Next up for Denver is a Wednesday trip to Minnesota for the second game of another back-to-back set. The meeting between division foes comes a week after a Nuggets’ home loss to the Timberwolves, a game in which Harris did not play and Denver’s defense became “nonexistent” in the fourth quarter as Minnesota rallied for a 112-104 victory.
Since that defeat, though, the Nuggets have won three consecutive games — largely thanks to their play on the defensive end of the floor.
“The team’s confidence is at a season-high right now,” Lyles said. “I think tomorrow we’ll be able to show what we’re capable of on back-to-backs, and show that last weekend wasn’t a fluke.”