Nuggets ditch happy trails to host struggling Jazz

The Denver Nuggets left for a tough two-game road trip late last week angry and in a little trouble after dropping a home game to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The 112-104 loss to a Northwest Division rival was costly, but the Nuggets turned a tough situation into a potential turning point in their season. Instead of predictably losing at Portland and Golden State before Christmas, they won easily in both places — on consecutive nights — and head home with confidence ready to face the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night.

“We’re tired of moral victories,” Denver coach Michael Malone told The Denver Post. “We want to start winning these types of games … it speaks volumes about the mental toughness that our players have, and most importantly, the belief that they have in what we’re trying to do and in each other.”

Malone hopes that belief carries over to the game against the Jazz, who have won both matchups this season. The Nuggets collapsed in the fourth quarter on opening night in Utah and were dominated again in Salt Lake City in late November.

But if the last two games are any indication, Denver (18-15) is ready to start a new home winning streak. The struggling Jazz (15-19) followed up a six-game winning streak by losing eight of their last 10. Not coincidently, some of those losses have come since center Rudy Gobert went down with a left knee injury that is expected to sideline him for two to three more weeks.

One bright spot in Utah’s recent woes is the play of Rodney Hood. Hood had 29 points in a win over San Antonio on Thursday, drawing praise from Spurs coach Greg Popovich. He is second on the team in scoring at 17.7 points a game and is emerging as a go-to player with Gordon Hayward leaving for Boston in free agency last summer.

“He’s embraced that from the beginning of the year,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “He had that window where he was out, and he kind of picked up where he left off. He strung together a couple 30-point games, and that’s kind of the player he’s become.”

Hood didn’t play in Utah’s 106-77 victory over Denver on Nov. 28 and had only six points in 18 minutes in the 10-point victory on Oct. 19. The Jazz will need him with the absence of Gobert, just like the Nuggets have needed the play of Mason Plumlee since Paul Millsap went down with a left wrist injury five weeks ago.

Denver has adjusted to the loss of the veteran, who is expected to be out until after the All-Star break. And Plumlee has a lot to do with that. He’s not going to score a lot — he’s averaging 8.3 points in December — but he provides steady defense. He had five blocks in the win at Portland on Friday night and has thrived with more playing time.

“It’s rhythm,” Plumlee told The Denver Post. “There’s something (with) playing that you can’t really get in practice or anywhere else. You just get on the floor with your teammates and you figure it out.”