DENVER (AP) -- For a long time, the Utah Jazz have been worried about what the team will look like when franchise players Karl
Malone and John Stockton retire.
Maybe they can breathe a little easier.
Scott Padgett and rookie Andrei Kirilenko scored 21 points each
as the Jazz fought off a late Denver surge to beat the Nuggets
110-99 Wednesday night.
"Our two best players are obviously no longer able to carry us in every single game we play," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "So it is critical for us to have a chance to win and for our young people to get better and understand what the game is about."
The Jazz dominated from the start, taking the lead at 6:23 in
the first and never letting go. They opened the fourth quarter with
a 15-point lead and widened it to 85-65 on a 3-pointer by John
Starks and a layup by Padgett.
Six Utah players scored in double figures, leading the Jazz to their sixth straight victory, all of them on the road. The Jazz are in the midst of a nine-game road trip because of the Olympics.
"Right now we have just had a good road trip and now we get to go home and regroup, get our energy back and continue on in a few days," said Stockton, who had 12 points, six on free throws. "It's nice when it works out that way."
After missing easy lay-ups and 3-pointers throughout the game,
Denver started hitting its shots in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets
trailed 96-78 with under 4 minutes to go before Voshon Lenard made
two 3-pointers. Raef LaFrentz added another to make it 97-85.
The Nuggets crept within nine before Byron Russell put the game out of reach with a 3-pointer with 1:49 left that made it 102-90. It was Denver's third straight loss.
"I think we have lost focus on what is important as a team and we have to find that again," Denver coach Mike Evans said. "We have to recapture that and get back to the business of trying to win games."
A big distraction has been Nick Van Exel, the Nuggets' leading scorer who has thrown the team into turmoil with his trade demand. He did not play for the fifth straight game because of an inflamed elbow.
Since the Jazz didn't have to worry about guarding Van Exel, they focused on LaFrentz. He had only two free throws in the second and third quarters after scoring eight points in the first. LaFrentz finished with 17 points.
LaFrentz, who is also rumored to be a possible trade candidate, acknowledged the talk leading up to Thursday's 6 p.m. ET league trade deadline was a distraction.
"I will be very glad after the deadline passes," LaFrentz said. "I will feel better knowing where I fit in and know when it all gets done."
But he refused to blame that for the loss, saying the Jazz simply worked Denver into the ground.
"The thing that is troubling is that Utah basically does the same thing all the time. You know what they are going to run, they run it and they dare you to stop it," he said.
The Nuggets' game plan was to smother Malone, and they practiced
it repeatedly in their morning shootaround. But when Malone was
stopped, other players stepped up. He finished with 19 points anyway.
Kirilenko provided Utah with the surge it needed early on. He
scored nine straight points and 15 overall in the first.
When Denver focused on him, Utah turned to Padgett, who scored
12 points, including two straight 3-pointers, to put the Jazz up
46-33 with 6 minutes remaining in the first half.
Avery Johnson led the Nuggets with 19 points, and Lenard had 16,
including three 3-pointers.
Stockton has made 23 straight free throws, dating back to
Feb. 2. ... DeShawn Stevenson played one minute in his first game
following a three-game suspension for pleading no contest to having
sex with a minor. ... Denver forward Ryan Bowen sat out his third
straight game because of a sprained ankle.