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Jamal Murray, Nuggets survive brief scare for win over Utah Jazz that leaves Michael Malone wanting more

For the first handful of possessions, the Nuggets’ encore to a statement win foreshadowed a layer of unexpected intrigue.

As coach Michael Malone challenged his team to maintain focus and effort against a less “sexy” opponent than the Boston Celtics during his pregame news conference Saturday, he said this about the visiting Utah Jazz: “With no Lauri Markkanen, they have no All-Stars. They’re playing a lot of guys that our players probably didn’t even know about. They don’t know how Brice Sensabaugh is.”

Before the Nuggets could walk away with a 142-121 win over the Jazz, that comment briefly resonated in an anxious Ball Arena. Sensabaugh (he was a late first-round pick out of Ohio State last summer, for what it’s worth) scored Utah’s first four points in front of the home bench. Then he didn’t score the rest of the first half as Denver built its largest halftime lead in franchise history, 78-44. Then he scored 10 of his team’s 44 in the third quarter as the Jazz exposed a snoozing Nuggets squad, trimming a once-39-point deficit all the way to 14.

“We stopped playing. That was embarrassing,” Malone said. “I could hear my father, who’s up in heaven — I hope he’s up in heaven — but every time we get a big lead, he said it: ‘You guys are the same old Nuggets. For nine years now, you get a big lead, stop playing. Stop doing what got you the lead. And you let teams back in. Almost every single night.’ So my father was right here tonight, talking to me, saying ‘I told you so.’”

The Nuggets (44-20) finally woke up in the fourth and prevented Utah from getting any closer, with the second-unit minutes led by a perfect Christian Braun. He scored 13 points without a miss before he fouled out, bringing his season 3-point percentage up to 36%.

Jamal Murray matched a season-high with 37 points on 13-of-21 shooting, plus seven assists and two steals. Nikola Jokic added 26 points, six rebounds, eight assists and two blocks. He was 12 of 14 from the floor. One of Denver’s only signs of defensive life in the third occurred when he anticipated a flare screen and intercepted it for a fast break, which turned into a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope three. The Nuggets outscored the Jazz 30-13 in transition, including one full-court inbound pass from Jokic to Michael Porter Jr. Denver also blocked 10 shots.

“If you look at every game we’ve played, I feel like there’s been a stint where we haven’t played well, so I don’t feel like today’s any different,” a disengaged Murray said while watching a UFC fight on his phone during his postgame news conference. “… I feel like we were doing a pretty damn good job for the whole game. It was just the one quarter that they played harder than us. And then we got back to it and we closed the game out.”

Missing Markkanen due to a right quad contusion, Utah’s comeback run was spearheaded by 29 points from Keyonte George. But it wasn’t enough to overcome a dazzling first-half performance in which Denver shot 14 of 20 from 3-point range and 66% from the field.

Porter was 3 for 5 beyond the arc in a 19-point effort. Murray was 6 for 9. Braun was 3 for 3. Six Nuggets players scored in double figures as they moved to 8-1 since the All-Star break with no regulation losses.

They finish up a four-game home stand Monday (7 p.m. MT) against the Raptors before leaving on a four-game road trip.

“I’ll take the win, but I’m not gonna let this slide and say this is acceptable,” Malone said, downplaying the 142-point night for the offense. “That doesn’t matter. We did not build the habits that we need in that second half. And our starting five, they as veterans have to be a lot better than they were tonight. I was talking to DeAndre Jordan walking out, and I said, ‘I’m really nervous about us,’ because guys are gonna go away from what we did to get the lead. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Nikola Jokic’s arm injury

Jokic was listed as probable with a right arm contusion on Denver’s injury report, and he had to warm up before he and the team determined he could play. Jokic was a minimal participant in the Nuggets’ shootaround Saturday morning, but Malone said there is no concern of the injury lingering and impacting Jokic for more than a game or two.

It occurred during the third quarter of a physical matchup between Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis on Thursday. Jokic was able to play through it, but while he sat on the bench during the fourth quarter, he tried out his shooting form with a wrap around his arm.

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