2020 Playoffs: First Round | Nuggets vs. Jazz

Jazz distance themselves from Nuggets with Game 4 march to line

Utah's advantage in free throw attempts helps it build a 3-1 series edge

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

The numbers from Game 4 of the Denver-Utah playoff series Sunday night were so gaudy, the stats sheet should have been printed in neon ink, with a dash of glitter.

Even if the difference in the outcome — a 129-127 Jazz victory to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series — was tucked quietly away as usual, in not-sexy-at-all monochrome.

Hardly noticeable, in fact, what with Donovan Mitchell scoring 51 points for the Jazz. And Jamal Murray countering with 50 for the Nuggets. That’s the first time in NBA playoff history two opponents each scored 50 or more in the same game. That turned the game at AdventHealth Arena on the Walt Disney World campus into something fit for Elgin Baylor vs. Rick Barry, Larry Bird battling Dominique Wilkins or LeBron James going against Stephen Curry.

There was more: One hundred shots up for Denver, 57.5% accuracy for Utah. Nikola Jokic with 29 points in support of Murray, 26 for the Jazz by “Dad of the bubble” Mike Conley. The Nuggets grabbing 17 offensive rebounds, while dishing 25 assists to a mere six turnovers. Thirty-one points off Utah’s bench.

And then you spot it, the disparity that Denver could not overcome:

The Jazz went 31-for-36 at the free throw line, while the Nuggets went 12-for-13.

In an exciting game decided by two points with historic individual scoring performances, Utah outscored Denver by 19 when no one was defending.

That’s a deflating kind of dominance asserted over his team, and Denver coach Michael Malone afterward wasn’t interested in talking about it.

“We’ve struggled to get to the line,” Malone said, “but I’m not going to comment on that. I’m not giving the league any of my money.”

The NBA is rather famous for fining coaches, executives and players who publicly air their gripes with officiating.

But anyone who watched — certainly anyone who goes back to break down the game video — will see two teams playing distinct styles, running their offenses from different places on the floor and all but blowing the referees’ whistles for them.

Denver launched jump shots, Utah attacked the paint out of pick-and-rolls. The former took advantage of some shoddy contesting, especially in the first half, by Jazz defenders to get into a rhythm on the perimeter and tended to stay out there. The latter put the ball in Mitchell’s hands seemingly every trip downcourt and had him slice into Denver’s defense.

It has been a problem for the Nuggets all series. In four games, they have been outscored 82-54 from the line — that’s an average of 7 ppg — while shooting 37 fewer free throws. Mitchell is 42 of 44 from the line, almost lapping by himself Denver’s star tandem of Murray (10 of 10) and Jokic (13 of 17).

In Game 4, Murray went 5-for-5 on free throws. He maybe should have had two more — not that Malone was saying anything about it — when he did drive hard to the rim with about a half minute to play and Utah up 124-120.

Murray was met there by Rudy Gobert, who did the right thing by leaping straight up, arms raised high. But as Murray, the Utah center did violate the “verticality” standard, bringing his left hand down across Murray’s right arm. No call, though, so Denver’s last chance to pull within a single possession went poof!

Murray wasn’t reluctant to plead his case then or for most of the night, one time showing one of the officials two fingerprint scratches on the back of his arm to indicate some serious uncalled contact. It’s different and pricier, though, at podium time.

“I’m not going to speak on it. I don’t want to get fined,” he said.

For Denver, being on the short end of free points is typical. It ranked 25th and 26th, in the regular season in free throws made and taken, respectively. Jokic’s 301 free throw attempts ranked 30th in the NBA, while Murray was 80th with 185.

Jokic’s two free throws Sunday in more than 39 minutes were conspicuously insufficient. Considering backup Jazz center Tony Bradley shot four while playing less than nine minutes.

“I’ve got to find a way to help Nikola,” Malone said of that issue in particular.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder was buoyant by comparison, as beneficiaries of refs’ whistles often are.

“He really attacked the basket,” Snyder said of Mitchell, who made 17 of his 18 foul shots. “That’s something he’s worked on and thought about a lot. For him to get to the line, that makes him tougher to defend.”

And with Mitchell playing that way since Game 1, who can blame Denver defenders if they’ve grown weary of those unwelcome meetings near the basket and seek out some contact?

It’s a Jazz thing, part of grinding in their halfcourt offense.

“I think that’s the biggest thing, if the shots aren’t there, to attack the rim,” Snyder said.

Mitchell, who also scored 57 in the opener Monday, has joined Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson as the only players to score at least 50 points more than once in a playoff series. He is 1-1 in those games, however, just as Murray now is 0-1 when going for 50.

Seems like the quieter ones, with everyone standing around, are the ones doing the real damage here.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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