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Learning to Love Goliath

Jokic and Gobert Shine in a Thrilling Game 7.

Who could have imagined that a series marked by historically high scoring performances would come down to a rock fight of a game 7. However, that’s exactly what happened Tuesday night when the Denver Nuggets defeated the Utah Jazz 80-78 in what will surely be remembered as a classic first-round series, in which the Nuggets found themselves down 3-1 after four games.

That is until Jamal Murray scored 142 points in three games, tieing the series 3-3 in the process. Despite rostering two of the league’s most uniquely talented big men, the series had been decided by explosive switch hunting guards exploiting lagging defenses. Game 7 was a different story. A newly discovered defensive intensity married itself to the frantic anxiety of an elimination game, intensifying the value of each basket. Utah’s lack of depth, particularly the often back-of-mind loss of Bojan Bogdanovic, figured largely in the first half. As Mitchell struggled to score, Gobert dealt with early foul trouble. Comparatively, the Nuggets role players shined, particularly Michael Porter Jr. who posted 10 points and 9 rebounds in 17 minutes, far and away his best stretch in the series. The Nuggets led by as many as 19 points in the first half, but the second half would be another story.

Rudy Gobert: La Tour de la Tourmente.

We should remember the turmoil surrounding this Utah Jazz team as they entered the bubble. It was after all Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus diagnosis back on March 11, 2020, that prompted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to indefinitely suspend the NBA season. Shortly before testing positive, Gobert was infamously caught on camera touching microphones and mocking the NBA’s early social distancing guidelines. Things would get worse as Gobert’s star teammate Donavan Mitchell would contract the virus and at least for a period cease communication with Gobert as he “cooled off”. What exactly occurred within the Jazz organization between then and the NBA’s resumption in Orlando we may never know but that is the context in which the Jazz entered the bubble. No Bojan Bogdanovich, and in need of plenty of locker room therapy.

Which is what makes the second half of Tuesday’s game seven so remarkable. Not only were Mitchell and Gobert sensational, they were connected. Sure the sample size is small, but there have been plenty of rocky relationships throughout NBA history that have found resolution on the court. The past is never past, but the Jazz should take solace in the fact that their two stars, despite everything, still share the passion to win above all. Donavan Mitchell played his best defense of the series and continued to be the primary initiator of nearly all of the Jazz’s positive possessions down the stretch, but it was Gobert that really shined, finishing with 19 points 18 rebound and 2 blocks, shutting down the paint defensively and making key baskets late.

 

Look at the amount of ground Gobert is able to cover in these possessions: this man is 7’2. Needless to say, the Nuggets shot 4/13 at the rim in the second half due to Gobert’s ceaseless energy. In the end, Gobert would play every minute of the second half, and for good reason too, because when he left the game with foul trouble halfway through the second quarter he left a house on fire.

Nikol Jokic: More Magician Than Joker

Nikola Jokic had 30 points and 14 rebounds on 52% shooting Tuesday night, saving his best performance of the series for its most pivotal game. But numbers seem to fall short as a measure of Jokic’s game. There were times on Tuesday night where every bucket seemed more arduous than the last, and Jokic is, in his own quirky way, one of the leagues great something out of nothing players. While Gobert excels through a kind of defensive formalism, Jokic plays with radical intuition, exploiting the tiny slivers of possibility in each possession. Let’s look at what would end up being the game-winning basket of the biggest game of the Nuggets

Gobert bottles up the drive from the elbow and stays down on the up fake. Utah’s perimeter defenders stay home on their assignments, fearing the slightest bit of attention Jokic’s way will result in an open shot. The possibility of a good shot seems slim to none…fade away, turnaround hook shot…nothing but net.

Early reports are Jazz star Donovan Mitchell intends to sign his rookie max extension over the summer.  Gobert will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2020-2021 season, giving the Jazz, if they choose, another year to decide how viable a team built around the Mitchell/Gobert pairing can be. The market will play its part, as Gobert will surely look for a max contract in Utah or elsewhere, but I think the Jazz would be foolish to move on from the pairing prematurely.  As for the Nuggets, I hope they enjoyed their well earned first-round series victory because they have a rested Clippers team waiting for them in the second round. The Nuggets were played off the floor in the team’s last two regular-season meetings, and there is no reason to be suspicious that this upcoming series will be any different.

Nuggets v. Clippers game 1

September 3, 2020, 8:00(CT) on TNT

Written by Shay Youngblood

Shay lives in New Orleans and writes about Basketball and other American arts.

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