Donovan Mitchell’s game became Jamal Murray’s finish.
Which speaks to the mismatch Mitchell and the Utah Jazz face in their first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets.
Mitchell put himself in the NBA’s postseason record book Monday — and his team in position to win Game 1 in the NBA’s Disney campus. But the game dragged on too long for Mitchell and the Jazz to prevail, and the same probably will be true of the series, which the Nuggets now lead 1-0.
Utah’s All-Star guard scored 57 points, the third-most in NBA playoff history, while playing more than 43 of 53 minutes in the team’s 135-125 overtime loss to Denver. He was a force from start almost to finish, taking over as the Jazz’s primary ballhandler with veteran guard Mike Conley out of the bubble for the birth of his third child.
Mitchell made 19 of 33 shots from the field, 13 of 18 from inside the arc, and went 13-for-13 from the foul line. He had nine rebounds and seven assists, and had Utah up by four, 109-105, with two minutes left in regulation.
As for the history part, Mitchell now ranks behind only Hall of Famers Michael Jordan (63 points in 1986) and Elgin Baylor (61 points in 1962) for single-game scoring performances in the postseason.
Of course, Jordan’s Bulls got swept by Boston from the first-round series in which he scored 63, just as Baylor’s 61 only fended off the Celtics a little longer in the 1962 Finals. Neither NBA legend had enough help against a better opponent, and that’s the distinct impression Mitchell and the Jazz left after their thrilling but unsuccessful work in Game 1.
That’s where Murray’s 36 points seemed like such a bonus for Denver. He didn’t have to lug around the Nuggets on his back all afternoon. He eased into the opener with just two points in the first quarter, yet his team was up 31-28. Through three, he was having a nice game with 16 points, while Mitchell with 29 was burning bright nearly every trip downcourt.
“Not good for us,” Denver center Nikola Jokic said later.
With less than two minutes to go, Murray was stuck on 18. Then he took over, scoring another 18 over the final 6:39 of the fourth and overtime. The 6-foot-4 guard basically morphed into the weapon Mitchell had been through the game’s first 46 minutes. Denver outscored Utah 30-16 from there, including a 20-10 spanking in overtime.
“He had what, 57?” Murray said of Mitchell immediately afterward. “He was killing us. We couldn’t get a top so we had to find some offense. We just ran a two-man game. We went with what was comfortable.”
If Mitchell didn’t run out of gas, he picked a bad time to lump together some crippling mistakes (three late turnovers). The first was a rare eight-second call when he brought up the ball too slowly with 1:46 left (Conley wouldn’t have done that). Murray immediately rose up for a 3-pointer to get Denver within 109-108. Mitchell also had two of Utah’s four turnovers to start overtime, helping the Nuggets seize control with an 11-2 start.
What began as a two-man game for the Jazz — Mitchell and Rudy Gobert teaming up in pick-and-rolls, as well as Mitchell scoring and Gobert defending — turned into a two-man duel of Mitchell and Murray late. Closer to the end, it was Denver’s two-man game of Murray and Jokic doing the “comfortable” things Murray mentioned.
Denver’s deeper roster was the problem most insiders expected. The Nuggets’ bench outscored Utah’s 38-26 and placed all four subs in positive plus/minus land. With Conley missing, coach Quin Snyder started rookie Juwan Morgan, an undrafted rookie from Indiana, signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Jazz last summer and was making the first start of his NBA life.
Morgan hit a 3-pointer and grabbed seven rebounds in 25 noble minutes. But he wasn’t a difference-maker while trying to fill the shoes of someone (Conley) who might have been.
Even with Will Barton (foot) and Gary Harris (hip) inactive, Nuggets coach Mike Malone had other tools on his belt like Jerami Grant (19 points) and Mason Plumlee to work the glass. He trusted the whole OT to Murray, Jokic and three reserves.
“We’ve got so many guys,” Murray said. “So many guys who can start on other teams. So many guys who can put the ball in the loop. So many who can defend. We’ve got two guys who are out.
“If a guy [Mitchell] has 75 or 80, winning is the most important thing,” the Nuggets guard added. “You’re scoring to win. You’re getting stops to win. … I can have two in one quarter and we’ll be up. That’s my nature.”
Murray said he and Mitchell did some “good” trash-talking through what was a fun game for players and viewers alike. A camera caught them smiling and chatting near the end.
But these are the playoffs, where it’s all fun and games until one guy reminds the other about how much help he actually lacks.
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