The Utah Jazz were shorthanded tonight, but that didn’t stop them from putting up a fight in Denver. The Nuggets had their hands full, but they ultimately prevailed with a 115-110 victory.

Jamal Murray continued his strong play with 30 points and 5 assists. Nikola Jokić produced a ridiculous triple-double with 31 points, 12 rebounds, and 14 assists. They did whatever they wanted tonight against a bad Jazz defensive unit, and though the Jazz hung around with an impressive offensive performance of their own, the Nuggets defense locked in when needed most.

The Nuggets and Jazz were tied heading into the final five minutes of the game, but some good defensive possessions and some reliable possessions from Jokić ended up being the difference. Jokić created all of the offense outside of two free throws from Murray with 0.9 seconds left. The big man wasn’t perfect, but he was good enough.

“That game was hanging in the balance,” said Michael Malone postgame, “and I think we were able to get some key stops. We were able to get to the foul line, and we made just enough plays to pull away a little bit at the end.”

Here are my three primary takeaways from Saturday night’s matchup against the Jazz:

Jamal Murray builds on last game

It was another strong game for the Blue Arrow tonight. Murray had it going from the get-go, scoring 30 points on 13-of-19 from the field. He only attempted three three-pointers, making one, but the mid-range was where Murray lived. He hit turnaround fadeaway jumpers from the post, up-and-under floaters, stepbacks, and much more.

It’s encouraging to see Murray build on an emotional moment in Portland with a steady performance against the Jazz. He was in control the entire night, navigated his way to his favorite spots all evening, and committed just one turnover. He played over 36 minutes tonight, a season high immediately after setting a season high for minutes in Portland. He’s clearly progressing to a place where he’s comfortable handling a heavier burden. That’s a great sign.

Nikola Jokić closes the deal

It was another “ho-hum” night for Nikola Jokić. The two-time MVP helped lead the Nuggets to a victory they desperately needed to have. Jokić dropped 31 points, 12 rebounds, and 14 assists in 35 minutes, getting to the free throw line 10 times and imposing his will when the Nuggets need it most. They knew they had to get the ball to Joker in the clutch, and though there were a couple of mistakes tis time around, it’s a choice the Nuggets will make again and again and again. It’s clearly the right choice.

Jokić also had four blocks and a steal tonight, his most “stocks” since a matchup against the San Antonio Spurs in early November. He protected the rim reasonably well tonight, with the Jazz doing most of their damage from the three-point and free throw lines. Jokić wasn’t exactly a stopper, but he helped Denver win the game specifically because of his defense.

Tonight, Jokić also achieved the 80th triple-double of his career. He’s now separating himself from Wilt Chamberlain’s benchmark of 78 triple-doubles, something that’s rarely stated about an NBA record. Jokić continues to be the all-encompassing force the Nuggets need every night.

Defense takes night off until clutch time

The Nuggets have struggled on defense for much of the season, ranking 26th in the NBA in defensive rating after tonight. The Nuggets gave up 104 points during the first 43 minutes of the game, their effort waxing and waning throughout. That allowed the Jazz to capitalize on mistakes and hang out until clutch time.

Then, the Jazz scored just six points in the final five minutes. The Nuggets allowed one made free throw, a three from Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and a putback dunk in transition. That was it though, and it allowed the Nuggets to separate from the Jazz in the final minutes with Jokić and Murray leading the charge.

“I think when you face a team that doesn’t have all of their firepower, you kinda just relax,” shared Murray. “Offensively, it was easy for everybody…so, we got a little lax on defense.”

The Nuggets rank first in defensive rating in the clutch this season by a mile. Their ability to lock in and force difficult possessions for opponents has stood out in direct contrast to the way they’ve played for much of the 26 games. When winning time happens, the Nuggets appear ready to go on that end. At all other times, they’ve left a lot to be desired.

“We can’t pick and choose when we want to defend,” Malone reiterated. “That’s what’s going on right now a little bit too often.”

Time will tell if the Nuggets defense is closer to the version during the first 43 minutes or the version during the last five. It’s certainly encouraging that the Nuggets have been able to generate stops when it matters, but too often, they’ve been unable to generate enough stops to keep games close. We will see if that changes during this extended home stretch.

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