On Oct. 19, the Jazz began the season with a bang when they upset the title-contending Nuggets on opening night. Forty home games later, the Jazz pulled off an even bigger upset.
Down six of their top seven scorers, leaving Kris Dunn — a post-All-Star break singing — as the lone guy averaging double digits, Utah gave Jazz Nation one last gritty and gutsy effort at home as they stunned the title-contending Nuggets 118-114 on Saturday afternoon.
“In a lot of ways, this game speaks for itself,” head coach Will Hardy said postgame. “So proud of our guys. … We were down a lot of people, but their approach didn’t change. The game means something to them, they’re trying to make a name for themselves. … We’re trying to make a name for our program and Utah.”
The growth of rookie wing Ochai Agbaji has been one of the primary storylines over the last month of the season, and Jazz Nation got an even better look at that growth on Saturday as he was sensational.
Taking over as a primary scorer against the Nuggets, he finished with a career-high 28 points, three assists, and three rebounds. He also had one of the best plays of the season, throwing down a vicious one-handed dunk in transition over Denver’s Aaron Gordon.
While the efficiency on the night wasn’t what he was hoping for, the fact that Agbaji took those shots after a tough performance two nights ago shows a level of confidence and maturity not often seen in a rookie.
The Jazz knew that if they were going to have a real shot at taking down a Nuggets squad playing with their regular starters and rotation, somebody would have a special night.
Luka Samanic was that guy.
After signing a multi-year contract with the Jazz after completing his 10-day contract, Samanic showed why Utah’s front office is so high on him when he dropped a career-high 23 points against Denver. He also added eight rebounds and two steals, shooting 9-of-14 from the field and 3-for-6 from beyond the arc.
With Agbaji and Samanic taking care of the scoring aspect of things, Dunn made it all possible.
Another guy the Jazz signed to a multi-year deal after completing two 10-day contracts, Dunn dropped his first double-double in a Utah uniform when he finished with 19 points, 14 assists, and eight rebounds. Not only was that a season-high in assists from a Jazz man this season, but Dunn also came dangerously close to breaking Utah’s triple-double curse.
It’s been a while since Utah got off to a scorching start, but that was the case on Saturday afternoon.
Agbaji, taking over as one of the primary scorers late in the season, got off to a blistering start when he scored eight points in the first four minutes as Utah jumped out to a 14-2 lead on the Nuggets.
Instead of letting Denver respond, the Jazz kept the pressure up as a Simone Fontecchio three gave them a 17-point advantage late in the first. The Nuggets eventually answered, cutting the deficit to 11 with less than a minute to go before Johnny Juzang’s short jumper ignited the Vivint Arena crowd.
Utah led 32-19 after one.
The second quarter began with runs by each team.
Threes by Micah Potter and Agabji capped a 6-0 run as the Jazz doubled up Denver, 38-19, less than two minutes in. Denver finally answered, going on an 11-0 run as Jamal Murray dropped seven points.
Another Potter three ended the run, but Denver wasn’t done. They cut the deficit to seven following a Reggie Jackson dunk midway through the second. However, Utah answered with a quick 8-2 run to push the lead back to double digits.
Denver woke up over the final few minutes, closing on a 17-5 run as they knocked down three threes during that span — but a Samanic bucket beat the buzzer.
Utah led 58-55 at the half.
Utah’s lead didn’t last long as Denver hit back-to-back threes on their first two possessions, but the Jazz answered with back-to-back buckets by Udoka Azubuike and Dunn to retake the one-point lead.
After a Jamal Murray bucket gave the Nuggets the lead, Utah rattled off a quick 8-0 run with Agbaji dropping a deep three at the eight-minute mark. The Jazz would later extend their lead to nine following a Samanic jumper midway through the quarter, but it was all Denver the rest of the way.
A Porter Jr. bucket kickstarted a 23-6 run as the Nuggets caught fire from deep, knocking down four from beyond the arc.
Utah trailed 95-89 after three.
After Denver’s lead swelled to nine early in the fourth, the Jazz again showed why they’re considered one of the most resilient teams in the league.
A Potter bucket started a 9-2 run as Utah cut the deficit to two at the midway point of the quarter, forcing a Nuggets timeout and igniting the Vivint Arena crowd. The Jazz kept coming, taking a one-point lead with just under three to play following two free throws by Juan Toscano-Anderson.
Agbaji would then seal the deal for Utah, knocking down back-to-back jumpers to push the lead to five before hitting two free throws with 11 seconds left as Utah pulled out the win.
“Overall our defense was great,” Hardy said. “We wanted to try and make them play a different style, and our guys were into it. … Tons of guys stepped up tonight. I’m really proud of the guys. ... I can't stress how impressive it is when you’re told these games didn’t matter.”
“Now it feels a little more full circle. … You get the improbable win at the end of the year as well,” he added.
Potter had his best game in a Jazz uniform, dropping his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. Fontecchio added 15 points, six rebounds, and four assists off the bench. Azubuike added eight points and 11 rebounds.
The Jazz close the season on Sunday with a matinee showdown against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers. Tipoff is set for 1:30 p.m. MT on ESPN.