DENVER — The Utah Jazz fell to 1-3 on the season after a 110-102 loss to the reigning champion Denver Nuggets on Monday night at Ball Arena.

Despite trailing by as many as 17 points, the Jazz were able to keep things close and make the Nuggets really work for the win, and that’s where the analysis starts for us tonight.

“The good part about this game is that in the film, you can’t hide. There’s no excuses to be made. You go back and watch the film and it shows you pretty honestly where you’re at. Our team knows that we have to improve.” — Jazz coach Will Hardy

A tale of two halves

The Jazz looked kind of out of sorts in the first half, with a lot of missteps on the defensive end, miscommunications offensively, missed shots, turnovers, lack of ball movement, etc, etc, etc.

In the second half though, the Jazz turned things around and although it didn’t make up for the ground they’d lost in the first half, it does serve as a blueprint for how they want to play.

“Our communication was five times better, our intensity and effort was significantly better,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said.

In addition to how much cleaner things were on the defensive side of things, the Jazz outscored the Nuggets 57-52 in the second half, committed just four turnovers, and had 19 assists on 25 made baskets.

“We’re gonna win a lot of basketball games if we compete the way we did in the second half,” Lauri Markkanen said. “Just showing what we can do as a team. We’ve got the heart, we’re never going to stop fighting and we’re going to win some of these games, but I think it’s going to be a learning process.”

A sigh of relief for Walker Kessler

Two nights ago, Walker Kessler was hanging his head and having a hard time seeing through the fog of a slump. On Monday night, his head was a little higher and he had a smile on his face after his first double-digit outing of the season, as he finished the night with 22 points and 13 rebounds.

In these very early days of the season, there hasn’t been doubt that Kessler would shake off the rust and get back to playing the way he did last season, but there’s a key piece to all this that needs to be said — Kessler needs his teammates to involve him.

“Walker needs our team to pass for him to be effective,” Hardy said. “Walker has responsibilities for our team offensively — as a screener and a roller and then the different spacings that he’s in … but Walker understands his responsibilities in all those spots … and then it’s on his teammates to make the reads to get him the ball.”

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Kessler admittedly is still not out of his rut defensively (he says that his timing is still a hair off), but he had some success in the second half even when he was operating as an off-ball and help defender with Markkanen guarding Nikola Jokic.

Schedule should open up for the Jazz

In these opening four games to the season, the Jazz have faced four of the most potent offensive teams in the Western Conference.

The Sacramento Kings had the best offense in NBA history last season, the Los Angeles Clippers have the third-best offensive rating in league right now, the Phoenix Suns are a potent and massively talented offensive team even when they are shorthanded, and the Nuggets are the NBA champs.

That’s put a lot of pressure on the Jazz’s defense, which is nowhere near as fluid as players and coaches want it to be right now.

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“It is what it is. Like, you have to play these teams eventually,” Hardy said. “The good part about this game is that in the film, you can’t hide. There’s no excuses to be made. You go back and watch the film and it shows you pretty honestly where you’re at. Our team knows that we have to improve.”

That being said, the Jazz’s upcoming schedule isn’t as littered with NBA juggernauts as these first four have been.

The Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls are up next. While the first four games are a good test to see where the Jazz are in terms of the top-tier teams in the league, the next four will be just as informative.

If things go well for the Jazz, they’ll know that they’re on the right track and just need to tighten things up, but if things go poorly, they’ll really have their work cut out for them as they re-examine things.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, front, collects the ball as Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler, pursues in a game Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, in Denver. After a disappointing start to his season, the Jazz big man turned in a solid outing, scoring 22 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. | David Zalubowski, Associated Press
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