Jazz 114, Nuggets 104
DENVER (AP)—George Karl, who recently backed away from his declaration that the Northwest Division race was over, refused to concede the crown to the Utah Jazz on Friday night.
His team pretty much did so on the court.
The Jazz, seeking their first division title since 2000, beat the Nuggets for the sixth straight time and increased their lead over second-place Denver to a whopping 9 1/2 games with a 114-104 rout at the Pepsi Center.
“It was a big game for me. It was a big game for us,” said Deron Williams, who scored 26 points and dished out 14 assists in his return to the lineup. “We wanted this one badly. It puts them 9 1/2 games behind us. If they somehow tie us, we own the tiebreaker.”
Williams, the Jazz’s top assist man, showed no signs of his strained left groin he sustained in the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge game All-Star weekend, forcing him to miss one game.
Carlos Boozer, Utah’s leading scorer and rebounder, also returned to the lineup after missing eight games with a hairline fracture in his left leg.
“I felt good,” said Boozer, who scored 10 points in his cameo appearance. “We want to take it slowly to make sure everything is strong and going in the right direction. I felt good in the 12 minutes I was out there.”
Just as they returned, however, another two Jazz starters went down.
Center Mehmet Okur was inactive because of back spasms, ending his streak of 233 straight starts, and forward Andrei Kirilenko left the game with a bruised knee after banging into Carmelo Anthony in the first half. He finished with no points and one assist in nine minutes.
No matter. Utah’s bench outscored Denver’s 70-21, led by Matt Harpring’s 22 points.
“Everybody stepped up big for us,” Boozer said.
The Jazz were hardly threatened by a Nuggets team that still fancies itself a division contender despite a lineup that’s been juggled all season because of injuries, illnesses, trades and suspensions.
The move was made to put the ball in Iverson’s hands more often, and he rebounded from a season-worst nine-point effort at San Antonio on Tuesday night to score 33 points against the Jazz.
Anthony led the Nuggets with 36 points.
“We don’t have no chemistry right now,” Anthony said. “We’re just trying to get everybody on the same page. It seems like everybody’s in their own world right now. The chemistry off the court is very great, I can tell you that. That’s why I don’t understand why the chemistry on the court is not as great.”
The Nuggets sorely missed sharpshooter J.R. Smith, who had arthroscopic surgery Wednesday after tearing cartilage in his left knee against the Spurs.
Smith, who is out for up to a month, has been coming off the bench and hiding many of the Nuggets’ flaws by allowing them to catch up via the 3-pointer. Without him, the Nuggets were just 3-of-9 from the arc and fell further and further behind as the Jazz turned a nine-point halftime lead into a 93-74 bulge after three quarters.
The Nuggets trimmed a 21-point deficit to single digits when Melo’s 3-pointer made it 107-98 with 2:54 left, but that was as close as Denver got.
Iverson moved around much better than he did against San Antonio in his return from a severely sprained ankle that sidelined him at the All-Star game.
“I felt all right. I’m not 100 percent, obviously, but I doubt if I’ll be 100 percent all year,” Iverson said. “I don’t think that will have anything to do with the production I can give my team. I’m fine. I’m just ready to go back on the court and I’m just happy for that.”
Karl is ever the optimist, pointing out that the Nuggets, flaws and all, are still in the thick of the playoff race.
“I think we’re dangerous,” he said. “Right now we’re dangerous to ourselves more than we’re probably dangerous to the opponent. But … we can become dangerous to the other team.”
Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson was whistled for a technical foul in the third quarter. … Melo (37) and A.I. (33) also topped 30 points apiece against the Jazz on Jan. 26.