GAME ONE / JAZZ 125 @ NUGGETS 135
The NBA’s seed has been spread, and now it’s playoff basketball! An exhaustive process where bottom feeders get up to seven games to pester championship contenders.
I kid, mostly, and this series should be anything but. These teams have similar-ish personas: hard-nosed, tough teams that run their offense through a standout guard (when Jamal is in his bag), and a gummy, paint chewing big.
It appears as though the Jazz never quite figured out their best rotations during the seeding games, which is pretty much the only thing they had to do, instead opting to play Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson all but a handful of minutes, and still lost to the Nuggets that run a solid 1-9, and then Bol Bol.
Spida was really out there doing everything a spida can, shooting a superhuman 57.6% to go with his 57 points. Twenty of them all in the fourth quarter. Playoff mode? Playoff mode.
This was literally all the Jazz could throw at Denver, and that wasn’t enough to outpace Jamal Murray and the tall lads.
Gobert shanked five of his six free throws.
The NBA has been called a copycat league before and whoever said that first was not wrong. After realizing that Mike Conley was leaving the bubble for the birth of his child and that he was still employed by the Utah Jazz thus meaning that the trio of Gobert, Ingles and the irrational confidence of Jordan Clarkson would basically be all he had in terms of offensive backup, Donovan Mitchell decided that it was time to take the plays from Dame Lillard, Devin Booker, James Harden and TJ Warren’s playbooks and go full on hero ball. Looking at what he has to work with and who he has to work against, I am definitely all for deploying this tactic. I’m also pretty positive that he won’t be going all in on this “come to Jesus” moment either. Lone gunmen like Caris LeVert, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Giannis, the aforementioned Harden and possibly even LeBron or Anthony Davis are all going to have to embrace the fact that not only are they the sword that their teams are going to live and die by, they’re also going to have to be the one to do all the swinging.
So shouts to Donovan Mitchell for giving it his all and dropping that fiddy plus on Denver. Man, are they going to need that from him (and more) in every game from here on out cause MPJ is just getting his feet wet in the playoffs.
And we all know that if he’s ever going to make a splash against one team in this playoffs, it’s going to be the fucking Jazz.
I love how we both managed to say very little about the Nuggets, and they won the game by ten. This is the most Denver Nuggets thing ever. “Hi, we’re the most unspectacular western conference second or third seed, who just casually wins a ton of games with little fanfare.” MPJ needs to find his own playoff mode if they’re gonna do more than tickle the Clips, but, keep doing your thing, Denver.
GAME TWO / JAZZ 124 (1-1) @ NUGGETS 105 (1-1)
So, yeah, the Jazz are a lightless hole at the bottom of Salt Lake beyond Spida, Stifle Tower, or yet-to-be-nicknamed duo of Jordan Clarkson, and Joe Ingles. But when that crew gets you 124 a night, it’s hard to be too salty.
The rotations are still a shopping cart with three good wheels and one that just shakes and rattles while dragging the whole thing inexplicably to the left, but, as long as Jordan Clarkson hero ball works the graveyard shift while the other three take naps, this might be enough to hold on. Clarkson seems to relish being the sole offensive output for the second unit, going four for four from far away, and dropping a nasty slam on Joker.
The Nuggets thought they only had one job to do to take this game off Utah: force anyone not named Donovan Mitchell to try and beat them. They double and triple teamed this dude, and he essentially just said “aight, cool” and climbed above his defenders and sunk shots all night. Sure it’s not 57, but it was THIRTY on 71% almost all of them with hands in his face. Denver had one job, and instead they dared Spida to beat them and he did.
You can’t really look at the game and get a sense of what Denver did horribly or where to go from here beyond actually stopping Donovan Mitchell. Michael Porter Jr. had a great 28 points, As did Jokic. Jamal Murray wasn’t what he had been, but he wasn’t the plumbing-the-depths version, either. Jerami Grant was trash, but no worse than forever-failson Emmanuel Mudiay. I just hope that opens the door for extra Bol Bol. Does that make it Bol Bol Bol?
GAME THREE / NUGGETS 87 (1-2) @ JAZZ 124 (2-1)
I swear, one more occurrence like this and the league is going to designate having a child as a PED.
That said, how long do you think it took for Nuggets Coach Mike Malone to ask Jamal Murray if his girlfriend had a single gal pal for MPJ?
Also if she was cool being snuck into the bubble via a high speed cigarette boat.
This series continues to puzzle me.
I guess we’ll start with the Jazz magic number, which is apparently 124, because it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in the bubble or not, they’re just gonna get 124. Royce O’Neale and Juwan Morgan—both had been starting before the return of Mike Conley—still gave Utah NO offense (four total combined points), which was still more than Joe Ingles tonight. Even with with a slow Joe night, Jazz got solid production from five, which is one more than they have.
Aforementioned Conley had himself a baby and a seven-of-eight from three night and was a nice 69% from the floor in all. So confident were the Jazz all that they let Rudy Gobert shoot FIVE threes, missing the bulk, but still shot 73% from the floor and had 24 points. It was quite a game for him in general that really set the tone that he was the biggest of them all down low, and it didn’t matter who the mountain men brought at him, he was going to bury them. Donovan Mitchell had a slow 20-point night, and the Jazz won by forty, which probably drove home several final nails in Denver’s coffin.
Jamal Murray could sneak in several of his girls’ gal pals, and I don’t think it will be the helping hand Denver needs.
MPJ shot 50% from the floor, and 50% from three, and yet, only saw six total attempts. He instead spent most of the game shading Gobert on defense as Utah’s big had his way down low. There is NO WAY Denver should be losing the size game down low. It’s too early to call this a mid-playoff-life crisis, but that friends, is what we have.
No one not named Jokic or Murray had more than 9 attempts for Denver. They honestly just didn’t have that many offensive possessions that were any good. They turned it over 17 times while only having 20 assists. The amount of suck required to do that is unquantifiable, or, would be, except that we know almost every Nugget who entered the game was double-digits minus on the game; the grand prize winner being Monte Morris who was -32.
Now let’s get back to Murray. Since his return, the ball has gone through him far more than it did during the seeding games, which makes sense, as he’s the point guard. However, despite his truly astonishingly good game one, Murray has been, well, what you expect. You take the good with the bad. This game was the bad. He decided to handle the scoring load himself, shooting more than anyone, and failing miserably at it as he was several notches below the team average from the field and from three (31% and 25% respectively).
What I find most frustrating is that in doing so, he’s taken the team away from the nice little rhythm they’d built in The Bubble. Sure, they were only 3-5 during the restart, but the offense flowed, and was more consistent than it has been in this series.
I tend to prioritize the game play during the restart more than I do the season prior for my eye tests, and I think that’s mostly been the correct approach for most of the playoff series. For the Nuggets however, I’m not sure what the right move is. Go with the lineups that came out of Murray’s absence (more scoring and a cleaner game), that still lost five of eight, or hope for the best with Murray who helped get you a third seed in the west, and came out hot one game, and has gone cold since? I do not envy Mike Malone as he tries to figure out how to save his season.
Bol Bol played nine minutes, and had eleven points. One less than Murray’s half-an-hour shift. Clearly, they need to start Bol Bol at point guard.
GAME FOUR / NUGGETS 127 (1-3) @ JAZZ 129 (3-1)
Goddamn basketball is cool.
The Nuggets thought to themselves, cool, the Jazz always score 124, so let’s go get 127. The Jazz responded, winning by two. Jamal Murray goes gonzo for 50, and Donovan Mitchell literally one-ups him with 51. I won’t believe that it wasn’t the most intentional, petty shit ever, and I love it.
In a weekend full of great hoops, this was perhaps the best of the bunch. Even after Luka did crazy Luka shit to draw the Mavs even. Watching these guards fire at will, going shot for shot with the kind of hero ball glory that has taken over the Bubble, and my cold dead heart. Even someone who loves “three and D defenders,” blocks and steals, this game was such stupid fun to watch, and at the end of the shootout, stood Spida, wearied but victorious in the dusty town thoroughfare devoid of onlookers that is the Disney arena.
Ultimately, this game will serve as the storyline game for the series. Where these teams settled back into their traditional roles. Nuggets got back to rebounding, and shooting threes, while Utah put perimeter pressure on the defense to allow Mitchell to carve out space to create offense, but, the truth is, Denver has been miserable at rebounds and points in the paint in this series. That will be truly disappointing for the team, and the Nuggets faithful, but we should also be a little sad for the basketball games we didn’t get. Games one and four stand out as markers of the series we could—and should—have had. Instead, we’re sitting on two truly remarkable games, and two mercy rules.
After tonight, I’m not even sure where the Nuggets go from here. They got a great game out of Paul Milsap, Jerami Grant, Jokic, and of course Murray. Meanwhile, they stopped everyone they’ve been able to stop, and even blanked Joe Ingles in this game, but once again, Mitchell, Gobert, Conley, and Clarkson proved enough.
I know Denver tried some things differently. Some of them I liked! Jerami Grant deserves to start! Some of them I did not, like putting MPJ on the bench. I know they were hoping he’d be a spark off the bench, where they’ve been weak, but that move came about three games too late. Dude had been so good through the Bubble that this felt more like a demotion than strategy. Sure his defense has not been at a playoff level, and he’s been a little sloppy, but he’s also a rookie in his first playoff games. What hasn’t suffered is his offensive efficiency. Obviously Mike Malone is closer to his players and how they’re working out, but, man, the kid is obviously something special, and you want to harness that, and not brutalize it.
Also… no Bol Bol. Still.
With all the bigs Denver has, it’s still a little sad that none of them have turned into an intimidating presence, that won’t allow other teams to walk all over them.
All that potential for Denver wasted. They were the third best team in the West at one point, right? Maybe even the second, considering all of the load management the Clippers did throughout the year. Maybe they just ran into the wrong time while they were on the right time. It’s not like they didn’t have anyone to counter Donovan Mitchell’s 51 point barrage, Murray did have a shitty game the last time out so clearly he was due for a 50 spot. Jokic wasn’t exactly a slouch either. It must’ve been the MPJ factor that they were missing. No offense but there’s not a lot of people out there have been clamoring for someone to finally call on Monte Morris’ number so why not let MPJ get his lumps in. They’ve already waited for so long, why are they waiting any longer?
I’ll also give you that the tete-a-tete between Mitchell and Murray made for a more entertaining game throughout (I shouldn’t have poo-poo’d on it even before it started on Twitter) but the second half of the Mavs/Clippers game, especially the final moments were absolutely electric to me. Still, good job on whoever scheduled the games for tonight.
This was more than a fitting way to end an awesome NBA weekend.
Images by Getty Images & ABABGC