The Utah Jazz ran out to a big lead over the Nuggets Thursday night, then held on for dear life during a late Denver surge and escaped with a 111–104 victory. A win over the Nuggets is a good win; a win over the Nuggets in Denver is, these days, almost unheard of. The Jazz did it while missing Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum, and Raul Neto. Royce O’Neale, a forward, started at point guard, and played 40 minutes. The vile Grayson Allen was his primary backup. You get the picture.
You need some things to go especially right to beat the Nuggets in Denver, especially when you’re playing without all three of your point guards. The Nug Men have now lost just twice at home since the calendar flipped to 2019, and just five times all season. Even after Thursday’s loss, Denver still has the best home record in the NBA, at 27–5. The Nuggets have an absurd 11.7 net rating in Denver this season, behind only the home mark of the steamroller Milwaukee Bucks (12.1) across the NBA. Their last loss at home was on January 15, to the Warriors, a team for whom so much is always going especially right that it has become unfair. For everyone else, winning in Denver generally means you were blessed by unsustainable, unrepeatable success of one kind or another. Thursday night, that success took the form of one Thabo Sefolosha:
Thabo isn’t quite this season’s version of Ekpe Udoh, but it’s fun to acknowledge the recent success the Jazz have had at fitting otherwise forgotten veterans into these narrow little roles and turning them into plus-minus heroes. Two seasons ago, the Jazz hauled Udoh out of far-flung obscurity and plugged him in as their backup center, where via solid screening and tremendous interior defense he functioned as a handy little plus-4 button: Whatever else was going on, the Jazz could sub Udoh in for a handful of minutes and, like clockwork, win that handful of minutes on the scoreboard.
Sefolosha, closing in on his 35th birthday, probably isn’t good for a whole lot more than 12 or 16 minutes of burn in an NBA game, but damn if he isn’t producing a sparkling 8.3 net rating for the Jazz, the second-best mark on the team. When they need him, when he’s called, Thabo is ready.
It’s fair to acknowledge that Utah’s defense was (and is) incredibly tough. The Nuggets have the fourth-best offensive rating in basketball, at 113.1 points per hundred possessions; at home that number jumps to a daunting 117.4. Thursday night, the Jazz held the Nuggets to a paltry 102.0, which is low even by Utah’s lofty standards. Rudy Gobert frustrated and smushed doughy savant Nikola Jokic into 10 misses of 15 shots, plus five turnovers. Non-Mason-Plumlee Nuggets reserves went a putrid 6-of-26 from the floor. Utah’s defense is great, especially if Gobert can mostly stick to his counterpart and not have to do a bunch of pain in the ass switching. The Nuggets are a good test and a good matchup for them, and the Jazz have now won two straight in their season series, with one final tilt coming April 9. This would be a very good playoff series.
But Thursday night Thabo really was, at least by a couple important numbers, the difference. The Jazz were outscored by 10 points in Gobert’s 30 minutes of burn; they were outscored by 14 points over Donovan Mitchell’s 36 minutes. During Thabo’s measly 11 minutes of action, on the other hand, the Jazz outscored Denver by a whopping 16 points. And this wasn’t just one little fluky second-quarter run: the Jazz went plus-8 in Sefolosha’s seven first-half minutes; and they went plus-8 again in his four-plus fourth-quarter minutes. He keyed that decisive first-half run, as noted by Hardwood Paroxysm, by banging home all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in one delirious two-minute spurt; in the late run he swiped a bad Gary Harris pass, grabbed a defensive rebound, and—in true Udoh fashion—just knew where to be at all times and was serious about getting there.
This is Sefalosha’s second season in Utah. Last season he played a little over 20 minutes a game in 38 regular-season appearances, and put up a solid 3.2 net rating on a 48-win team that nonetheless performed better when he was off the floor. The second year of his contract, covering this season, was non-guaranteed, reflecting the relative insecurity of his spot on the roster. He is not a vital cog in their system, as reflected in the fact that he’s only played in 31 games this season. But there are teams where late-career veterans go to soak up one final bloated contract and die—looking at you, Wizards—and then there’s Utah, where by whatever alchemy they have a knack for carving out useful and meaningful roles for guys whose last and best remaining skill is knowing the most productive way to stay the hell out of the way. Sefolosha may never have another true highlight in the NBA, but he’s good at not fucking up! Often that means nothing sexier than knowing where to put his feet for five minutes at a time. Thursday night it meant launching when it was his turn to launch, and making ‘em count.
Mitchell scored 24 points and made some beautiful clutch buckets down the stretch. Ingles took on primary facilitating duties and racked up 10 assists in his 36 minutes. Kyle Korver poured in 22 points in 22 minutes off the bench. All of this stuff matters in a huge road win in the toughest road venue in basketball, and a guy who finishes minus-10 didn’t necessarily play any worse than a guy who finishes plus-16. But spare a nod of appreciation for old man Thabo, who snuck into both halves of the game and left each time having helped stake his team to a much stronger position than the one he’d inherited. That’s the job! Most nights it will take the form of a few smart stunts and hedges and cuts, or slithering around a few tough screens, or surviving a few sweaty seconds pinned on an opposing center or exposed against a lead guard. Thursday night Thabo got to pour in a few huge buckets. It was nice to be given such a vivid reminder of his important little niche, for a change.