Jazz outlast Nuggets in playoff-type clash of rivals
The ingredients for a playoff atmosphere were poured into the Pepsi Center and blended into a frenzy as the Nuggets and Utah Jazz renewed their longtime hardwood feud on Friday night.
The game lived up to its billing, but the end result was disappointing for Denver and its fans as All-Star point guard Deron Williams returned from a wrist injury and led Utah to a 113-106 victory.
Williams, who missed Utah’s previous four games, had 26 points and 12 assists, while Al Jefferson added 28 points and converted a key three-point play (on a pass from Williams) that helped the Jazz put the game away in the final minute.
“You’ve got a kid who’s really, really good and that’s Deron Williams,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “He’s the motor and he’s the guy who leads them. He seemed very possessed to win this game.”
The Nuggets (29-21) dropped a half-game behind the Jazz (30-21) for second place in the Northwest Division, with the final two head-to-head games to be played in Salt Lake City.
“Tonight is definitely a tough loss, but it’s not the end of the world,” Denver shooting guard Arron Afflalo said. “We’re 50 games in and we have 32 games that we look forward to, that all mean something. (Utah) played hard and we’ll have the opportunity to return the favor on their home floor.”
If Friday night was any indication, it’s probably a good thing the Jazz and Nuggets will have a month to cool off before their next meeting.
With the intensity already near maximum level, Denver guard J.R. Smith was ejected when he was called for a flagrant foul 2 after knocking Raja Bell to the floor on a fast break with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Williams drew a technical foul in the ensuing shoving match and Carmelo Anthony hit the free throw, but the Bell knocked down both of his free throws and Jefferson scored on the next possession to turn put the Jazz up by eight.
“You just can’t do things like that against a good team when the game’s probably going to be under a five-point game,” Karl said.
The Nuggets kept battling and had a chance to tie the game when Anthony found Afflalo open in the left corner. Afflalo’s three-pointer was a little strong, and Jefferson converted his back-breaking three-point play at the other end to push the lead back to six with 51.2 seconds to play.
“You don’t play perfect games, but at the same time, there are plays in the game that hold meaning and significance. That was one of them,” Afflalo said. “It was an opportunity to tie the game. No excuses. Just got to make the shot.”
Afflalo finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth career double-double, while Anthony scored 31 points on the strength of 17-of-18 free-throw shooting and Nene tied his career-high with 28 points on 10-of-12 shooting.
Nene’s big night came within hours of missing out on an All-Star commission.
Earlier Friday, NBA commissioner David Stern named Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love as an injury replacement for center Yao Ming on the Western Conference All-Star roster.
Nene is the NBA's runaway leader in field-goal percentage (.647) and is averaging a career-high 15.4 points and 7.3 rebounds for the Nuggets, who lead the NBA in scoring and offensive efficiency, as tabulated by ESPN.com.
Love is a having a breakout season, averaging better than 21 points and 15 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who have the league’s second-worst record (11-38).
“I’m disappointed for Nene,” Karl said. “I think Nene is a bigger part of our success than the national media seems to be recognizing. He’s not going to have the spectacular numbers of some of these other guys because he’s so unselfish.
“In terms of consistency and efficiency, I think everybody understands that when Nene touches the ball, good things happens. The efficiency level of players is not underrated by coaches.”
Perhaps fittingly, Nene will face Love tonight when the Nuggets play the Timberwolves at the Target Center in Minneapolis. It will mark the beginning of a seven-game stretch leading into the All-Star break.
“We want to win them all,” Afflalo said. “We have two here at home, and the games on the road are teams we feel we should be able to compete with and win. This is a time when guys start looking forward to the break, but we don’t have that luxury. We have to stay dialed in and get the wins that we need.”