So, in the annals of demoralizing playoff defeats, where does this one rank?
* You somehow manage to induce your opponent’s best player, the league’s reigning Kia MVP and a newly minted scoring champion — with the league’s highest average in 32 seasons — to brick his first 15 shots, setting a playoff record for futility.
* That same player draws his fourth foul with 20:28 remaining in the game, while his only other teammate who can consistently create for himself and others earns his fifth with 13:26 left.
* Oh yeah, you’re playing at home, in front of one of the league’s most rabid crowds.
And yet, somehow, with advantages you’d happily pay several months of gameday revenue for as you attempt to dig out of a 2-0 deficit, you … lose?!?!?
Such is the extent of the wounds the Jazz will have to lick before Tuesday’s Game 4 as they dissect how in the world the Rockets were able to escape with a 104-101 victory that, if NBA history is any guide, all but ensures their advancement to the second round at 3-0.
As great players are wont to do, Harden still had a big impact, finishing with 22 points despite shooting a miserable 3-for-20 from the field. (Not only did he set the aforementioned record for most consecutive misses at any point in a playoff game, his 15.0 shooting percentage was the third-worst of his career when taking at least 15 shots.)
Harden insisted after the game he had no idea he was shooting that poorly, and his fourth-quarter production backs that up. Attacking the Jazz at every opportunity, he accounted for 22 of Houston’s 30 points in the period, scoring 14 and assisting on eight more, as the Rockets held on against virtually all odds.
His first bucket? A dunk with less than eight minutes remaining:
He followed with a pair of 3-pointers, including a back-breaker at 1:11 after Jazz star Donovan Mitchell cut Utah’s deficit to one with a 3 of his own.
“That’s James Harden,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “He’s that good at the end. You give yourself a very small margin (if the game is close).”
Combined with great defense, good ball security, ample support (led by 18 points from the foul-plagued Chris Paul, five other Rockets scored in double-figures) and a nightmarish shooting night for Mitchell (18 missed field goals, one more than Harden), it was juuuuuuuuuust enough for the Rockets to escape.
“Just keep shooting,” Harden said of his mentality. “My job is to go out there and produce and be in attack mode. Nothing changes (at 0-15).”
Said Paul, “At the end of the day, it’s win the game. It doesn’t matter what he shot. We won the game.”
Just like championship runs have become a rite of early summer in San Antonio, so have early exits in Denver. When the Nuggets even make the playoffs at all, which they did this season for the first time since 2013.
That was the last of 10 straight postseason appearances for the Nuggets. All but one resulted in first-round exits, with two of those coming after they squandered home-court advantage in the first two games.
So it came with a strong sense of déjà vu, perhaps even inevitability, that the Nuggets promptly stumbled out of the gates once more with a 101-96 loss to the Spurs in the opening game of their first-round series. That put them in the unenviable position of needing to win their first game of any kind in San Antonio since 2012 – a stretch of 13 straight losses – and their first in the playoffs since 2007, when the team was anchored by Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.
Attempt No. 1 failed with a 10-point loss in Game 3 that wasn’t that close. But with a 3-1 deficit staring them in the face, the Nuggets found some nerve, shaking off both their woeful history and a sluggish start to outscore the Spurs by 26 over the final three quarters for a commanding 117-103 victory in Game 4.
Even with home-court advantage restored, they still have plenty of work to do if they hope to advance. But the maturity and composure displayed by Nikola Jokic and company on Saturday indicate these Nuggets, unlike so many of their predecessors, could actually be up for that challenge.
I saw a confidence, a belief that’s necessary to come in here and win.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone
“I saw a confidence,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “I saw a young team that wasn’t thinking about 2012, because if you think about the last seven years, it will overwhelm you. We were living in the present, for Game No. 4. That’s all we worried about. We know we didn’t show up the way we needed to in Game 3. But guys stepped up (in Game 4), and it wasn’t just veterans. I saw a confidence, a belief that’s necessary to come in here and win a game like we did.”
Malone can put himself in that category as well, after making the necessary-but-gutsy decision to bench a struggling Will Barton in favor of undrafted 28-year-old Torrey Craig. The former G Leaguer made the 43rd start of his NBA career count, more than tripling his regular-season scoring average with 18 points while helping limit Derrick White, the star of Game 3 with 36 points, to just eight. (Just don’t call him a postseason rookie. “I’ve been to the playoffs in Australia!” he joked, as reported by Nuggets.com.)
Barton, meanwhile, shook off his disappointment – “I don’t agree with it,” he said of his benching after the game – to contribute 12 points and three 3-pointers. Combined with quality outings from Jamal Murray (24 points, six assists) and the incomparable Jokic (29 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists), the Spurs were the ones losing their cool and questioning their own toughness – a predicament the Nuggets usually find themselves at this stage, rather than their opponents.
“The Nuggets competed and we did not,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Their physicality was obvious from the get-go. You knew that was going to happen and we did not respond. So, it was a very disappointing loss.”
And for the Nuggets, a potentially defining moment.
The best defensive stance of the day belonged not to Jimmy Butler, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, or P.J. Tucker.
No, that honor belonged to Bucks assistant coach Taylor Jenkins, whose quick thinking and impeccable form helped his players keep their cool during a potential skirmish with the Pistons.
The Bucks assistant made sure no one cleared the bench 😂 pic.twitter.com/r5y4unBBP1
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 21, 2019
Stirring the pot
Consecutive days Joel Embiid has gone without throwing shade: 0.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 20, 2019