SALT LAKE CITY – In what was meant to be a celebration of returns for the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz played spoiler. Malik Beasley canned three pointers and danced in front of the Nuggets bench. Collin Sexton showcased his aggression and quickness on drives to the basket. Lauri Markkanen did just about everything. The Jazz won the season opener 123-102, showing that the Nuggets clearly have a long way to go to reach their desired goals.

“Tough way to open the season,” head coach Michael Malone admitted.

Nikola Jokić finished the game with 27 points on 12-of-17 from the field, adding six assists and four rebounds. He was the leading scorer for either team. Aaron Gordon was the second leading scorer as well with 22 points. Unfortunately, the Jazz had seven players reach double figures, including 68 combined points from the bench unit.

All losses require a bit of perspective and context, perhaps this one most of all. The Nuggets welcomed back Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. after extended absences, and both players returning and playing extended minutes was far more important than any loss. Malone knows this, and it’s why he’s not as stressed about this one.

Murray began his evening in style, shaking Mike Conley for a step back mid-range jumper that invoked images of the Murray of old. Coupling that with a strong drive in transition, Murray showed Nuggets fans exactly what they had been missing: dynamic, off-the-dribble scoring. Aaron Gordon kicked off the game with a stylish dunk. The Nuggets were playing better defense.

Then, just about everything went downhill.

A poor defensive run to end the first quarter allowed the Jazz to put up 37 points in the first quarter. Rather than improve on that mark, the Nuggets somehow regressed, giving up 38 points to a flurry of three-pointers, second chance points, and points in transition after turnovers. Denver trailed by 22 points at the half.

“Hopefully for our guys, the message is simple: play harder,” stated Malone. “Make a mistake, miss a shot, I don’t care. Play hard.”

In the second half, the Nuggets certainly fought back. Strong performances by Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon along with improved defense helped shrink the seemingly insurmountable lead back to size. The Nuggets pulled within seven of the Jazz midway through the fourth quarter, but back-to-back threes from the Jazz stopped the run in its tracks. Denver ran out of gas in the team’s first extended minutes of the year, and they ultimately fell off at the end.

“Tough way to start the season,” Malone lamented, “but we’ll watch film. We’ll learn, clean some things up tomorrow, and get ready for Golden State on Friday.”

Here are the three big takeaways from Denver’s season opening loss in Salt Lake City:

Three-point shooting was the biggest difference

While the Nuggets hoped to provide Nikola Jokić with more spacing on the outside this year, it didn’t manifest in the first game. Denver as a team shot 5-of-22 from three-point range, good for 22% and likely one of their low water marks on the season. More importantly, they only attempted 22 threes, instead driving into the teeth of the defense and forcing up some contested shots at the rim instead. Porter shot 2-of-4 from three, while the rest of the team shot just 3-of-18.

“We didn’t shoot that much. The second half was a little bit better but not where it’s supposed to be,” Jokić shared postgame.

On the other side, the Jazz bombed threes, shooting 16-of-38 from three and spacing out the Nuggets interior defense. Five members of the Jazz hit multiple triples, and many of the shots were a result of breaking down the defense and kicking out.

“They made a lot of shots. We didn’t,” Jokić summed up Denver’s defensive woes. “They were open. It’s not like they were just making contested shots.”

It was a poor perimeter effort from Denver on both fronts.

Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are rusty, but no matter

It was good to see both Murray and Porter back on the floor, a positive stronger than any negative that occurred from this game. Murray had a solid first quarter while Porter hit some key shots in key moments to keep the Nuggets close. Both played reasonable defense too. Murray finished with 12 points on 13 shots but showcasing some good defense. Porter finished with 15 points on 10 shots to go with seven rebounds.

“It’s been a minute. The pace of play was tough, also on the road, [their] home opener. Everybody’s playing hard as hell out there,” Murray shared postgame. “That was the first time I completed a whole game, so it was just nice to complete the whole game. Check that off my list.”

Murray was in a good mood despite the loss. He’s been thinking about this moment for a long time, and though the result wasn’t what he wanted, it was still an important leap.

“I know I’m smiling when we lost,” Murray quipped, grinning. “I’ve never smiled when we lost before.”

There were some rusty moments, particularly from Murray. The game appeared to be moving pretty fast for him at times, and there was an inordinate amount of indecision on which shot was the right shot for him to take. This is obviously understandable given that he hasn’t had a ton of live reps, and it will get better soon. There will be some more rust to kick off though.

“Jamal played exactly how I expected,” Malone shared. “Jamal hasn’t played in a long time, so I’m warning everybody: be careful with your criticism. The guy hasn’t played in a long time.”

“When you don’t know what’s going to happen, the timing of it, that kind of throws you off a little bit,” Murray said.

Porter looked good, throwing around his body and battling on both ends. 35 minutes was really impressive especially with how physical he was playing. He dove for multiple loose balls, hustled to contest shots, and battled on the interior. It was a version of healthy Michael Porter Jr. the Nuggets haven’t seen since the Portland Trail Blazers playoff series win in April 2021.

The team is still struggling to find Porter a bit, and only 10 shots probably isn’t enough going forward. Four turnovers wasn’t great either, but those will come down. It’s all part of the process.

That top five defense needs some work

123 points allowed is a lot. 16 threes allowed is a lot. Denver had some good moments of defense at the point-of-attack, but Utah scored in droves in the first half. 75 points.

“That team dominated us in every regard,” Malone said. “Their bench scored 68 points to our 24. They got to the foul line 31 times. 16 threes.”

Only 48 points allowed in the second half is a good start, but the damage was already done.

“I thought we came out in that third quarter, and that’s how hard we need to play to give ourselves a chance,” Malone opined. “Cut it to seven early in that fourth quarter, but we ran out of gas.”

The Nuggets know they need to be better defensively. The effort wasn’t there tonight, or at least it came too late. The execution fell off as the effort improved too, allowing the Jazz to seal the deal at the free throw line in the fourth quarter. The Jazz have talented scorers, but there’s no way the Nuggets should allow 120+ under any circumstance if their stated goal of winning a championship is real.

Plenty of film to go over. Not a lot of time to prep before Friday’s matchup against Golden State.

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