DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 10: Nickeil Alexander-Walker #6 of the Utah Jazz plays defense during the game against the Denver Nuggets on December 10, 2022 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

"I Thought They Deserved To Win" | Severely Shorthanded Jazz Almost Shock Denver

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

Considering the circumstances, Saturday night in Denver was arguably Utah’s most challenging game of the season.

The Jazz were down their three leading scorers (Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Collin Sexton), their leading assist man (Mike Conley), and a player who just dropped 18 points and a game-winner a few nights ago (Simone Fontecchio). Add in the fact that Utah was playing the Nuggets (No. 4 in the West), and on the second game of a back-to-back, it’s easy to see why they entered Saturday at a “slight” disadvantage.

None of that mattered. 

Instead of making excuses, all Utah did was battle the well-rested Nuggets for 48 minutes. Despite five players in double figures, fatigue took over in the end as the shorthanded Jazz fell 115-110 to Denver on Saturday night.

“I thought they (Jazz) played really hard. … Honestly, I thought they (Jazz) deserved to win the game,” Will Hardy said postgame. “Some unfortunate missed shots, some unfortunate moments down the stretch. That’s a really good team we just played, and I thought our team represented ourselves really well.”

After being elevated to the starting unit last game, Nickeil Alexander-Walker got the opportunity again against Denver and didn’t disappoint. 

He finished with a season-high 27 points, shooting 9-of-16 from the floor and 5-for-10 from three-point territory. He added three rebounds and two assists.

His night was special because he ran Utah’s offense effectively, either attacking the rim to open things up for his teammates or making the extra pass to find the open shooter. His game continues to evolve under Hardy, a positive sign moving forward. 

“I think Nickeil overall played a really good game,” Hardy said. “I love the way Nickeil approaches the game. … I think he competes on both ends really hard.”

With Clarkson and Conley out, Talen Horton-Tucker found himself in the starting lineup. It was an excellent opportunity for the guard as his minutes had dwindled over the past few games — and he made the most of it. 

He was electric on both ends of the court, using his big body and elite handles to finish with a season-high 19 points, adding seven rebounds, four assists, and two blocks. 

It wasn’t the greatest of starts for Utah, looking like a team who played last night as they fell into an early 7-0 hole. Back-to-back three-pointers by Malik Beasley and Kelly Olynyk put the Jazz right back in it — a theme for the first quarter. 

Utah was locked in from behind the arc, shooting 7-of-13 from deep as they could stay in contact with the Nuggets. They trailed 28-26 after one. 

The second quarter saw the Jazz come back down to earth from three, shooting just 2-of-10. But Horton-Tucker returned and found a rhythm early, tying the game at 34 following a personal 6-0 run. 

The teams would exchange buckets for the next eight minutes, with Utah staying alive thanks to a balanced offensive attack. However, Denver closed the half with a 10-2 run as Utah struggled in transition. 

The Jazz trailed 61-52 at the break.

The third quarter began with more of the same, each team exchanging buckets and the Jazz doing all they could to keep the game from getting out of control. After Denver’s lead reached 10, Utah responded with an 8-0 run as Beasley had five in a row. 

Despite tying the game on multiple occasions, the Jazz were never able to pull ahead — until Beasley dropped another three late in the quarter to give Utah an 81-80 advantage. It was short-lived as Denver responded strong, taking a 92-90 lead entering the fourth.

The Jazz surged ahead in the fourth, going on a 7-1 run as Rudy Gay had a quick five points, forcing an early Denver timeout. The Nuggets would respond, tying the game at 104 with just over five to play. 

But without the veterans and legs starting to get heavy, the Jazz struggled on offense and began to turn the ball over, allowing Denver a quick 7-1 run. But Utah would respond with a 5-0 run to tie the game at 110 with two minutes to go. 

After the Nuggets took a two-point lead with a minute left, the Jazz looked poised to tie it when Horton-Tucker drove hard to the lane. He appeared to get hit in the arm by Nikola Jokic, but there was no whistle. Utah had one more chance to tie the game, but Alexander-Walker’s three was off the mark, ending the comeback. 

“Just really proud of the way our guys battled all night long. … I thought they executed on both ends of the court,” Hardy said. “I never doubt our team’s intent to play together.”

Beasley finished with 19 points, five rebounds, and three assists, knowing down four shots from deep. Olynyk added 18 points, nine rebounds, and three assists. 

Walker Kessler was sensational, going up against the two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, finishing with 10 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks in 22 minutes. 

The Jazz will now have two days off before they host the West-leading New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.