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Jazz, Nuggets meet in rematch of improbable season opener

Oct 24, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) passes against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz pulled off what seemed like a stunning victory over the favored Denver Nuggets when the two teams squared off in their season opener on Oct. 19.

Despite the circumstances surrounding the teams entering the campaign — with Utah undergoing a massive rebuild and the Nuggets coming in as a championship contender — nobody would be surprised if the Jazz earned another victory in their rematch Friday night in Denver. Or at least played a competitive game.

Since that stunning 123-102 victory, during which Collin Sexton led seven Jazz players in double figures with 20 points, Utah has gone on to win three of their next four.

Meanwhile, Denver, the Northwest Division favorites, has had a mediocre beginning of the season. Sure, the Nuggets picked up a nice 128-123 win at Golden State a week ago, but they’ve also been blown out a second time, by the Portland Blazers 135-110 on Monday.

Regardless, Friday’s showdown offers more intrigue than most would have figured leading up to the season.

Denver coach Mike Malone credited the Jazz for outworking the Nuggets in the first half of the first game, especially the second quarter, when the big lead was built.

“And I think to a man everyone in (our) locker room would agree,” Malone said. “We looked like a different team, felt like a different team (in the second half). But in this league, you can’t pick and choose when you play.”

MVP Nikola Jokic scored 27 points on 12-of-17 shooting in the first meeting, but he thought the Nuggets overlooked too many open opportunities and played a bit confused.

“I think the mentality was that we didn’t know what to do,” Jokic said.

The Nuggets looked less confused against the winless Los Angeles Lakers during a 110-99 win Wednesday night in Denver. Jokic amassed 31 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and four steals, and the Nuggets broke the game open by outscoring LeBron James and the Lakers 32-17 in the third quarter.

On the other side of the Rockies, the Jazz avenged their only loss of the season by beating Houston 109-101 two nights after losing to the Rockets on the road.

Lauri Markkanen continued to be a force for Utah after being traded to the Jazz from Cleveland in the offseason. Markkanen, or “The Finnisher” as the Jazz are playfully calling their standout player from Finland, scored 24 points with nine rebounds. Jordan Clarkson, the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year, added 20 points with five 3-pointers in his new role as a starter.

Markkanen has been Utah’s leading scorer this season despite struggling from 3-point range, where he’s shooting just 24.2 percent. He hit 10 of 15 shots Wednesday night.

“I know the numbers will even out, so I keep working on it and it will start going eventually,” Markkanen said. “But it feels good I’m able to do other stuff than just rely on that shot.”

Utah built a 19-point lead midway through the third quarter and then fended the visitors off after Houston rallied to within two with 5:39 left in the game.

“I’m happy for our guys. … Winning in this league is really hard every night,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “Our team has to try and find a way, and that’s with guys having to step up and answer the bell.”

The Jazz played the second half without Sexton, who sustained a left oblique contusion. The Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr., who had 15 points and seven boards in the first game against Utah, has missed time with a spine injury.

–Field Level Media