2020 Playoffs: First Round | Nuggets vs. Jazz
Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray putting each other -- and NBA -- on notice
High-scoring showdown has quickly escalated into a must-watch matchup
This is the selfish time of the NBA season, getting closer to the end, yet not quite there.
Coaches and players get selfish because they want what they want, sooner and easier, in playoff series that are as short and as lopsided as they possibly can be. This season has been long – the longest ever, by the calendar count – so with all the extra challenges inside and outside the Disney bubble in Orlando, there selfishly is only one perfect ending for the participants: Advance to the next round, go 12-0 from there and throw the Larry O’Brien trophy into the overhead bin for the flight home.
Then there are the rest of us, who want what we want too. And what we selfishly want is more. More highlight plays, more buzzer-beaters, more moments. And in the case of the Denver-Utah series, more Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray.
Getting five games pitting two of the Western Conference’s emerging stars has been terrific. Thanks to Murray’s remarkable performance Tuesday — 42 points, 33 in the second half, to lead the Nuggets to their 117-107 elimination-defying victory — we’re assured of a sixth, coming on Thursday (4 ET, ESPN).
And if we’re being honest (and aren’t simply impatient Utah fans), we selfishly, greedily are hoping for a seventh.
That’s how special Mitchell vs. Murray has been. Seven-game series? It’s feeling more like a seven-round heavyweight championship fight, in spite of the NBA Finals being a month away.
The video clips of their backcourt matchup thus far could be edited to that old song, “Anything you can do, I can do better”. They’ve come back from the lockdown hiatus as noticeably improved, more dynamic and, for now, consistent players.
Game 5 belonged to Murray and his Nuggets. When the Denver defense got stingier in the third quarter, rejecting the 15-point deficit that was on the verge of putting them down and out, Murray was ready to handle the other end.
He scored 11 of Denver’s 13 points in a run that whacked Utah’s 81-69 lead to 84-82. Murray’s last bucket in the 13-3 stretch was a flying, 360-degree layup that was more breathtaking than if it had been a dunk. He had scored 17 in the period, 26 in the game to that point, and then he kept going.
Over the final 12 minutes, with Murray playing them all, he scored 16 more. He didn’t neglect his point-guard responsibilities either, dishing four assists, mostly looking for Nikola Jokic (eight points in the fourth), Jerami Grant (seven) and Michael Porter Jr. (four).
Jokic had 21 points in the first quarter on 8-of-8 shooting to stake Denver to 33 points. Murray’s 7-of-8 in the fourth helped them reach 35.
“He started it and I finished it,” Murray said.
But that was it for sizzle from his postgame Zoom session, as time and again the fourth-year pro from Kitchener, Ontario (by way of a season in Lexington, Kentucky) opted for the “never get too high, never get too low” boilerplate verbiage.
No problem for Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who was happy to hyperbolize on Murray’s behalf.
“Jamal embraces the moment,” Malone said. “He’s not afraid of it. Some people run away from those moments. He looks for them. Not even just the points. His attitude, that swagger, that confidence, that is contagious to all the players.
“Forty-two, eight and eight. The young man is growing up and turning into a superstar on the biggest stage, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
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Murray, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, became the first player to log consecutive 40-point games in the playoffs without committing a turnover. At least since 1977 anyway, when individual turnovers started getting tracked.
Malone recalled a game against Chicago when Murray, as a rookie, caught fire and played beyond his years. “He took over, and you could see he fed off the energy of the crowd,” the coach said. “He came to us with that. He’s a big-game player. In these playoffs, he’s making even more of a name for himself for that.”
Mitchell, too. Through five games, the Jazz guard is averaging 37.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists, with games of 57, 51 and (twice) 30. Murray is at 30.8, 6.4 and 6.8, and after a regular season in which he scored 36 or more three times in 59 games, he has done that three times in five in this series.
That includes memorable Game 4, when Mitchell had 51 and Murray 50. No crowds to feed off in the bubble, but lots of skills on display.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” Murray said. “I’m not focusing on it but it’s hard to not notice. He’s going at a high clip and we’re doing different things to stop him. They’re just hitting so many shots, it’s hard to put that much attention on Donovan and still get out and contest all those other shooters.
“We’re not focused on a 1-on-1 battle. Winning is the priority.”
Said Mitchell, whose 30 points seemed like a slow night only by comparison: “They hit a level that we didn’t quite reach. That’s just on us. [Murray] did a great job of getting downhill, getting to the rim, knocking shots down. For me, it’s just trying to make it tough on him.
“He hit tough shots. He made tough moves. I’ve got to give him credit. I’ve got to be able to do both.”
Did he say both? That’s our selfish answer to the question: Do we want to see Murray and Mitchell play one more game, or two?
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