Nuggets get scare with Nikola Jokic, fall to Jazz for second straight loss

SALT LAKE CITY – Crisis, it appeared, was avoided.

When Nikola Jokic grabbed his right knee late in the first half after banging it against Utah center Rudy Gobert, all that mattered was his status. And even though Jokic missed the remainder of Tuesday’s 122-110 loss vs. the Jazz, it didn’t appear as bad as it could’ve been.

After heading back to the locker room, Jokic returned at halftime to test it out. He practiced putting weight on it, backing down team strength trainer Felipe Eichenberger as if he was an interior defender, and got shots up. Ultimately, on the second night of a back-to-back, he didn’t return with what the team described as a right knee contusion. The reigning MVP left with 24 points on 8-for-9 shooting, six assists and six rebounds.

Now 2-2 on the season, the Nuggets will have several days to evaluate Jokic before Friday’s game vs. Dallas.

Without their seven-foot pillar available, the Jazz funneled the ball inside to Gobert and, later, Hassan Whiteside. The Jazz outscored 31-20 in the fourth quarter, finishing with 60 points in the paint. Gobert ended the night with 23 points and 16 rebounds.

It wasn’t for a lack of fight. Both JaMychal Green and Whiteside were ejected with 4:57 left in the game after Green shoved Utah’s backup center. The skirmish escalated for a few moments before team security broke it up. And even though the Nuggets lost, the sequence was indicative of a prideful group uninterested in conceding.

Another testament was how Will Barton, Aaron Gordon and Monte Morris responded after Jokic’s exit. All three raised their aggression levels and made the outcome far more interesting than it could’ve been. Gordon had 20 points on 9-for-13 shooting and seven rebounds, while Barton finished with 21. Morris chipped in 19 and four assists.

But the Jazz, with seven guys in double figures, were too deep. Utah’s bench pummelled Denver’s bench 42-13 amid the convincing result.

Without Jokic, Barton carried the offense in the third quarter. Following Monday’s loss, Barton vowed to be more of a playmaker, insisting it was his job to create, attack and facilitate. He cut a ruthless path to the basket in the third quarter, pouring in 16 points on drive after drive. Monte Morris sprinkled in two 3-pointers to help supplement Barton’s scoring.

With no traditional backup centers on the roster, it was JaMychal Green who filled in admirably in Jokic’s place. The Nuggets trailed just 91-90 heading into the fourth.

At least for a half, the Nuggets cleaned up their turnover issues. Their four first-half turnovers were a far-cry from the debacle on Monday night, when 22 turnovers against Cleveland undermined any chance they had of winning.

“We’re dead-last in turnovers committed and we’re 29th in points allowed off those turnovers,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before the game. “Aside from the turnovers and you talk about how we’re not getting to the foul line at all and when we do get there, I think we’re last in free throw percentage at 62 percent.”

 

There was nothing wrong with the offense Tuesday, as the Nuggets connected on 55% of their first-half looks and trailed just 66-64 at halftime. Led by Jokic’s 24 points and Gordon’s 15, the Nuggets’ frontcourt pummeled Utah inside. Even Porter, who’d struggled with his rhythm, added seven points with several pure jumpers over the first two quarters.

The problem was finding consistency in the second unit. Utah’s bench outscored Denver’s 25-7 in the first half, including 12 points from Jazz gunner Jordan Clarkson.

“Throwing Bones out there (Monday) I thought was helpful, was impactful,” Malone said. “He gave us positive minutes. … If I gotta get guys out there to get some energy and change it up a little bit, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to win the game.”

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