First, play harder and more consistently than the Nuggets have in two straight losses of the opening-round Western Conference playoff series.
Second, do it very soon, or they will have big trouble and little time.
“Right now it’s easy for us to fix,” Anthony said after practice Saturday. “But we’ve got to want to do it. If we don’t want to do it, we might as well pack our bags right now.”
The Jazz lead the Nuggets 2-1 after a 105-93 victory on Friday. Game 4 is Sunday night in Utah and both teams know the colossal difference between being tied 2-all and a 3-1 lead—or deficit—in the best-of-seven series.
“I’m pretty sure we should be motivated coming into the game tomorrow after last night,” Anthony said.
While the Nuggets felt their own mistakes down the stretch allowed Utah to win Game 2 in Denver and tie the series, Game 3 was an undisputed victory for the Jazz. Utah outscored Denver 63-41 in the middle two periods and the Nuggets finished with only two players in double figures—Anthony and Chauncey Billups(notes), who both scored 25.
Only a few months ago, the Nuggets came to Salt Lake City and stunned the Jazz at home as Anthony and Billups sat out with injuries. The other Denver players have shown they can score—and score plenty—against Utah.
“It shouldn’t have to come down to how well me and Chauncey play. We’re only two guys,” Anthony said. “We need everybody.”
Anthony said there was an inexplicable lack of effort from Denver in Game 3, which gave the Nuggets something obvious to focus on in practice Saturday. He said he had some 1-on-1 chats with teammates, reminding them how well the Nuggets play when everybody is pushing.
The Jazz were also talking about their need to play together as they try to advance without two injured starters.
Utah got contributions throughout the lineup and rattled the Nuggets out of the kind of plays they made while going 3-1 against the Jazz during the regular season.
Denver was playing like that again in the first quarter on Friday, then imploded after Utah made a quick run to tie it early in the second.
“When the game was going good, the effort was great. Once they made a run, our effort kind of slacked off,” Billups said. “That’s what it is. It’s unacceptable.”
Although the Jazz aren’t facing the pressures of not falling behind 3-1, this game is just as big for Utah.
If the Nuggets win, the series is tied at 2 before Game 5 on Wednesday in Denver. The Jazz don’t want to have to come up with another playoff win on the road, where they have improved but still don’t play nearly as well as they do at home.
The series opened in Denver and the Nuggets were able to blow open Game 1 in the fourth quarter after Utah hung close for three periods. Anthony finished with a career playoff-high 42 points. Billups had 15 points as six Denver players scored more than 10.
“It’s still the same team—still a potent team. They’ve still got very good players and playmakers,” Utah guard Wesley Matthews(notes) said. “They’ve got too much firepower to push the panic button right now.”
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said he was obviously pleased with the way Utah played in the last three quarters Friday, but the first period still alarmed him.
A couple early blocks were all Denver needed to discourage Utah from driving to the basket and the Jazz complied with a long string of outside shots that bounced off the rim. The Nuggets let the Jazz pass it around the perimeter and waited patiently for any Utah player who dared to come inside.
Williams said he expected the Nuggets were humbled and will come out Sunday angry and dangerous.
“This series is not over,” he said. “People might have switched the bandwagon to us, but we still know what this other team is capable of and we’re not going to just look past them.”
The Jazz haven’t played a Sunday home game since a second-round series against the Lakers two years ago.
The NBA generally doesn’t schedule home games in Utah because of the state’s large Mormon population. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognize Sunday as the day for church and family activities.
That may keep a few people away, but they should have no trouble selling their tickets. The Jazz’s last playoff game on a Sunday was a sellout when the Jazz beat the Lakers 123-115 in overtime on May 11, 2008.