SALT LAKE CITY– The Denver Nuggets had seven healthy players to face the Utah Jazz and believed they had nothing to lose.
Thanks to a noteworthy performance by Nikola Jokic, the tired Nuggets overcame significant obstacles and recorded an improbable 98-95 victory over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night.
“We were believing and we didn’t want to let this game go. We have excuses. We have seven guys … but we wanted to give ourselves a chance and give 100 percent of ourselves,” said Jokic, who finished with 31 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jokic is the 10th player with a 30-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in NBA history and just the second in 35 years (joining DeMarcus Cousins) to achieve the statistical feat in a win.
Jokic made 13 of this 14 field goal attempts with Rudy Gobert as his primary defender.
“Joker was amazing. He was playing cat-and-mouse with Gobert all game,” Jamal Murray said.
The Nuggets had such a short bench due to their part in a four-team, 12-player deal a day before the trade deadline and a cascade of injuries.
“This was our best win of the year,” Denver coach Mike Malone said.
That showed as the players, including all the injured Nuggets, celebrated on the court after the final buzzer.
Murray scored 31 points and the Nuggets held the Jazz to just one field goal over the final 7:08.
“Who gave us a chance to win this game? Nobody! It’s a testament to the confidence we have, the courage that we have, the resiliency we have,” Malone said.
Mike Conley scored 21 points, but missed a floater with eight seconds left that would have given the Jazz the lead. Gary Harris, who missed all 13 of his field-goal attempts, made two free throws with 5.8 remaining for the final margin.
“It’s hard to win games when you’re not doing (good) things defensively. Offensively, we had too many turnovers and too many breakdowns,” Conley said.
Jokic posted his 11th triple-double of the season and fortunately for Denver, Murray was able to play two games in two nights, returning from an 11-game absence due to a sprained ankle.
“It hurts now, but it’s easier when you’re making shots,” Murray said.
Donovan Mitchell had 18 points on 8-for-24 shooting, Bojan Bogdanovic had 16 points and Gobert added 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Jazz, who lost their fifth straight game after winning 18 of 20.
“There’s no way for us to be who we want to be and who we have been (and) lose this game,” Mitchell said.
The Jazz led 71-56 after Conley’s fifth 3-pointer of the game before the weary Nuggets embarked on a 20-4 run, capped by Monte Morris’ running jumper that gave Denver its first lead since the first quarter, 76-75.
Jokic and Murray went to the bench to rest, and Jazz made their move and weren’t stopped — even when the Denver duo returned.
The Jazz went on an 11-1 run, highlighted by a Clarkson-to-Mitchell alley-oop dunk.
But Torrey Craig, who has harassed Mitchell into multiple subpar games, hit a 3-pointer and then blocked the Utah guard, leading to another layup as and the Nuggets closed within 92-89. Jokic hit a 17-footer that cut Utah’s lead to 93-91.
“Nobody expected us to win so we just had that play free mentality,” Murray said. “We were tired, for sure, but we have been there before and we found a way to execute and get the shots we wanted and then got the stops we needed.”
Last week, the Nuggets pulled off an unlikely sweep in back-to-back games, defeating Utah at home and Milwaukee on the road. They won back-to-back games again, beating the Jazz one night after a 127-99 rout of Portland on Tuesday.
“Before the break, this is the perfect time to steal some victories and this is the one we really wanted to steal,” Jokic said.