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The Utah Jazz vs Denver Nuggets

A Fairy Tale Beginning in Disneyland

The Utah Jazz vs Denver Nuggets kicked off their playoff matchup, unlike any other Monday afternoon, with a thriller. The Nuggets eventually prevailed in over-time 135-125, taking a 1-0 lead in the series, but it wouldn’t come easy.

Jazz Guard, Donovan Mitchell posted 57 points, a career and franchise high along with 7 assist and 9 rebounds only to be outdueled by the Nuggets Jamal Murray’s clutch shot-making down the stretch.  Murray, who entered the 4th quarter of Monday’s contest with just 16 points, would finish with 36 points, 9 assists, and 6-9 three-point shooting. It was dazzling. The big man ballet between Jokic and Gobert, the high drama of the Michael Porter Jr. experience, the pure joy of watching Joe Ingles get to dribble the ball again, all took second billing. The 4th quarter was the Mitchell and Murray show.

Mitchell already had 35 when he re-entered the game at the 8:58 mark in the 4th quarter, he then proceeded to score or assist on all but two of the Jazz’s remaining possessions in regulation. He attacked anyone and every one the Nuggets threw at him, exploiting the slightest defensive hesitation. Monta Morris, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and of course poor Michael Porter Jr. would all have their chance to be embarrassed by Mitchell.

Jamal Murray’s first 4th quarter bucket wouldn’t fall until the 3:13 mark, giving the Nuggets a 105-104 lead. Mitchell would respond by using a Gobert screen to pull up from three on the very next possession. It would be a harbinger of things to come.

2:11, 4th quarter. Utah Jazz vs Denver Nuggets 

An example of just how much pressure Mitchell puts on the defense once he gets rolling.  Grant does a good job navigating the initial Gobert brush screen, but once Mitchell changes direction and rounds the corner of the second Gobert screen it’s all over. Jokic is cooked, and Michael Porter Jr’s help from the corner is too casual to affect the strength and speed of Mitchell.  Plays like this are why 22 of Mitchell’s 57 points came in the paint.

1:55, 4th quarter.  Gobert does a nice job containing Jokic off the dribble and blocks his layup attempt. His hard work is then erased by an inexplicable 8-second violation by Mitchell.

1:39, 4th quarter. Murray rejects the Jokic screen, gets great separation, and drains a three. The Jazz lead shrinks to one.

1:32, 4th quarter.

The Nuggets could really use Gary Harris and Will Barton about now.  Donavon Mitchell hunts the switch, gets the match-up he wants, and makes quick work of Michael Porter Jr.  I would suspect this is the last time we’ll be seeing Michael Porter Jr. on the court for decisive late-game possessions.  You get the feeling that coach Malone is just taking his medicine here, game 1, let’s see exactly how bad this is gonna go.  It went badly, Porter would sit the final minute and over-time.

1:25, 4th quarter. Step back three by Murray on Ingles.

1:12, 4th quarter.  Really fun, “screen the screener” action which leverages the defenses attention on Mitchell into an open three for Royce O’Neal. O’Neal misses the three.

1:00, 4th quarter.

I was surprised to see the Jazz stick with Ingles on Murray down the stretch, and not go with Royce O’Neal.  It’ll also be ingesting to see how Mike Conley’s return will impact the Jazz’s decision making in regards to Murray.  How they respond and adjust to the Jokic/Murray two-man game, particularly at the end of games could determine the series.  On this possession, Murray’s improved handle and change of pace allow him to set up a beautiful step-back on the disciplined but slower footed Ingles.

:49, 4th quarter.

With Porter Jr. on the bench, Murray becomes Mitchell’s preferred target. Even when the Nuggets have the benefit of their full roster, they’ll have to get creative when it comes to protecting Murray on defense.  If not this could be a preview of 4th quarters to come.

:28, 4th quarter. Utah Jazz vs Denver Nuggets

Tied 113-113 Murray pulls up off a Jokic screen and forces Gobert to contest. Gobert is drawn out of the lane on the contest leading to an open rebounding lane for Jokic who grabs the big rebound, gets fouled, and makes both free throws. The Jazz fall victim to the Jokic/Murray two-man game once again. But after two made free throws by Mitchell on the ensuing possession, the Jazz get the one big stop they need to send the game into overtime.

Gobert does an incredible job containing the Murray drive, recovering to Jokic at the top of the key, and sliding his feet to stay in position to contest the drive. It’s a real master class by the 2x defensive player of the year, in the game’s biggest moment.

Donavan Mitchell gave NBA fans 48 minutes of greatness, the perpetually snubbed Gobert reasserted his importance with a game-saving contest at the rim, the Jazz had seemingly even survived 25 minutes from rookie Juwan Morgan. But then came overtime and Jamal Murray.

Utah Jazz vs Denver Nuggets Overtime.

Jamal Murray would score 10 of the Nuggets 20 points as they pulled away from the Jazz in over-time, on 4-5 shooting, showing impressive decisiveness and decision making down the stretch, in the pick n’ roll with Jokic.  In what was the most poised performance of his young career.

Here, on the first play of over-time Murray snakes the pick n’ roll, keeps his dribble alive long enough to shift the big and attacks the rim with purpose.

This next clip shows the same very same awareness of Gobert, resulting in the Jokic three.

 

The Jazz and the Nuggets each have their own set of looming questions to answer.  The Jazz who came into the bubble without Bojan Bogdanovic and who are going to be without Mike Conley (who left the Orlando bubble for the birth of his child) until at least game three.  Conley had been apart of the Jazz’s Orlando starting lineup which was +30 in 84 minutes coming into the playoffs. Conley’s addition will bring a veteran presence, a third ball handler, and, perhaps most importantly for a team averaging 42 three-pointers a game in Orlando, another capable shooter. The Nuggets came into the playoff down two starters of their own, with all sorts of lineup questions.  As tantalizing as Michael Porter Jr. has been in Orlando, he is still a rookie and a defensive liability.  The 6’10 wing is already a sophisticated offensive player, fearless shooter, and ideal cutter for Jokic, but his playability particularly down the stretch will depend on his ability to compete defensively.  He’s talented enough to be a difference-maker in the absence of Harris and Barton. It could, however, just as likely be a case too much too soon.

Lagniappe

Paul Millsap struggles – Millsap has found success throughout his career posting small weaker players particularly in the playoffs when play tends to slow down and buckets are harder to come by, but Monday was a struggle. Going 3-10 in 29 minutes, and just never looked comfortable.

Monte Morris, shines – After a disappointing post-season last year Monte posted a +10 Monday with 14 pts, 4 ast, and 2 three-pointers on 66.7% shooting including a big three down the stretch.  Morris’s performance was more than numbers though; he was engaged and tenacious throughout.

Juwan Morgan – 3 pts, 7 rebs, and a +17 in 25 minutes, bless his heart.

Nikola Jokic – He’s beautiful, let’s never take him for granted.

 

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Written by Shay Youngblood

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

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