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Five Observations: Trey Lyles comes up huge against former team

In December, Lyles averaged 14.5 points on 54 percent shooting in just 27.5 minutes per game. He’s carried that momentum over into the new year. He scored 16 points Wednesday vs. the Suns and played perhaps his finest game of his career against his former team Friday.

Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets raced past the Utah Jazz with a big third quarter to defeat their division rival 99-91 on Friday at Pepsi Center. Trey Lyles and Jamal Murray — the two former Kentucky Wildcats on the roster — carried the scoring load. Here are five observations from the game.

1. Trey Lyles just keeps getting buckets

Will Barton might have Sixth Man of the Year competition — from his own teammate. Lyles has exceeded all expectations since he became a part of the Nuggets’ rotation when Paul Millsap went down.

In December, Lyles averaged 14.5 points on 54 percent shooting in just 27.5 minutes per game. He’s carried that momentum over into the new year. He scored 16 points Wednesday vs. the Suns and played perhaps his finest game of his career against his former team Friday.

The 22-year-old poured in a career-best 26 points against the Jazz, who in June traded him away for Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights. Lyles went 9-17 from the field, 4-8 from 3-point range and knocked down four free throws. His polished inside-outside game has been a boon for Denver as it’s navigated life without Millsap.

“They were trying to switch pick and rolls, and we found Trey in the post,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He finished. And as the game wore on, he showed his ability to score from the perimeter. There’s not a lot of things that Trey Lyles can’t do offensively.”

Lyles is lethal around the basket and from deep. He entered the game shooting 73 percent at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. And after making half of his threes against the Jazz, he’s shooting 46.1 percent on 102 three-point attempts.

“They traded a guy, and they can’t really stop him,” Murray said. “He had it going. He was hitting shots all over the game.”

2. The other Kentucky Wildcat had a good game, too

Ricky Rubio was in excellent position to grab the rebound. Rubio had Murray on his back. Gary Harris’ miss was coming right to him. But then Murray skied over him, snatched the ball out of the air and dribbled out to the left side of the floor where he drained a fadeaway three.

“When we offensive rebound and kick it out, we call it daggers,” Torrey Craig said. “He daggered himself. That was the first time I’ve seen somebody dagger himself.”

Murray was excellent from start to finish against the Jazz. He scored 26 points on 13 shots, went 6-7 from three-point territory and contributed six rebounds and three assists.

“December was his best month as an NBA player,” Malone said. His confidence is really high. He’s being really aggressive. You can see it emanating from his body. What I love about Jamal is this: I get on him. I coach him. I yell at him. He’s always (says), ‘OK.’ He never takes it personally. He knows that everything we’re giving him is constructive to help him become a better player.”

3. Game turns again in third quarter

The Nuggets played an uninspired first half of basketball, turned it up in the third quarter and rolled to a home win. Sound familiar?

Denver blasted Phoenix 37-18 in the third quarter Wednesday then blew the doors off Utah on Friday by a nearly identical score — 38-16.

The Nuggets shot 14-23 from the field in the decisive 12-minute stretch. Their starting group — Murray, Harris, Wilson Chandler, Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee — rolled over Utah’s. Murray scored seven points in the period, including a four-point play.

4. Malone plays nine

Malone made good on his promise to expand the rotation against the Suns. Ten Nuggets received significant minutes against Phoenix. Two nights later, Malone doled out rotation minutes to all of those same players except for Kenneth Faried.

Malone said afterward he kept his rotation at nine because of Utah’s small ball lineups.

“We didn’t play a lot of bigs tonight,” he said. “This was small ball game. Tomorrow night we’ll play bigs against Sacramento. We’ll need Kenneth Faried.”

Malone went with Lyles, Will Barton, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig off the bench. Lyles even saw some time at the center position, matching up against Derrick Favors.

5. Trending opposite ways

The Jazz drilled the Nuggets 106-77 on Nov. 28. It was a nationally televised game in Salt Lake City.

“We got our ass kicked,” Malone said afterward. “They did whatever they wanted. We were completely outplayed.”

At the time, the Jazz were riding high while Denver was still scuttling. Since then, both teams have trended in opposite directions. The Nuggets are 12-8 since that loss, with two of those wins coming over the Jazz in Denver. Meanwhile, Utah is just 6-12 and has fallen out of the playoff picture.

Things change quickly in the NBA.