Pepsi Center homestand ends on sour note for Nuggets
Nuggets coach George Karl did everything short of placing a large yellow warning sign in the middle of the locker room.
His pregame message was simple:
The Utah Jazz team that visited Pepsi Center on Sunday was much better than the one that struggled in Denver on Dec. 28.
Karl, it turned out, had reason to be concerned as Paul Millsap scored 16 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to help the Jazz pull away for a 106-96 victory over the Nuggets.
Utah (8-4) was playing the second of back-to-back games, while the Nuggets (8-5) were two days removed from an impressive victory over the Miami Heat.
“Utah played with an intensity that we played against Miami and we didn’t show up with intensity,” Karl said. “I would probably blame it on our NBA-cool. We thought we were cool after kicking Miami’s butt and we got embarrassed.
“The NBA game does that quite frequently. If you think you’re better than you are or you think you’re cooler than you are and you don’t think you’ve got to put in the hard work to win games, you get embarrassed.”
The Jazz, 8-2 since losing by 17 points in Denver in the second game of the season, controlled the tempo of the game by shooting 51.8 percent from the field. Utah also scored 22 points on 16 Nuggets turnovers.
“Intensity and effort, it falls on all of us,” Denver shooting guard Arron Afflalo said. “We’ve got to do a better job of picking up the energy level, picking up the effort level. A lot of those mistakes will take care of themselves simply by playing harder.”
The Nuggets entered the night averaging an NBA-best 23.3 fast-break points but managed a season-low 11 against Utah. They also played the second half without hustling reserve guard Rudy Fernandez, who suffered a strained right Achilles’ tendon midway through the second quarter.
“We just didn’t have the energy,” forward Al Harrington said. “We are a better team. No matter how you cut it up or you want to say it, we just didn’t match the intensity.
They don’t run like we do; they run their play – all five options of it - and it throws us off a little bit from our running game. We have to find other ways to execute when we can’t run as much we want to.”
Despite struggling from the field (42.7 percent) and the free-throw line (26-for-39), the Nuggets trailed by only two points after Danilo Gallinari hit a three-pointer with 10:37 left in the fourth quarter.
The basket gave the crowd a jolt and looked to be the spark Denver was looking for, but Millsap responded with seven straight baskets for Utah as part of a personal 14-4 run that gave the Jazz a 12-point lead with 5:06 to go.
The Nuggets got as close as seven points in the final two minutes but the comeback stalled when Ty Lawson was called for an offensive foul in the open court with 1:29 remaining.
“It was a lack of confidence that comes when you dig a hole for yourself,” Karl said. “When you’re trying to come back, a stupid foul or a three-ball or an offensive rebound, they’re double-heavy. They’re double-powerful. Utah kept getting them.”
After ending their four-game homestand 2-2, the Nuggets now head on the road for four games in five nights, starting Tuesday in Milwaukee. Denver then gets three days off before ending the extended five-game trip in Sacramento on Jan. 25.
Following home losses to New Orleans (3-9) and the surging Jazz, the Nuggets know their focus will have to be better on the road.
“Every game’s different,” Afflalo said, “but we have to have our anticipation and our mental approach to the game at a high level regardless of the stage.”
Notes: Gallinari made 12-of-12 free-throws, while his teammates combined to go 14-for-27. It was the fourth time in his career he has gone perfect with at least a dozen attempts … Chris Andersen had a season-high four blocked shots … Nene played in his 537th career game, moving past Dan Schayes for seventh place on Denver’s career list … The Nuggets fell to 1-5 when being outrebounded and 3-3 when scoring less than 100 points.