2020 Playoffs: First Round | Nuggets vs. Jazz

Another Murray eruption has Jazz staring at elimination

Utah, once so in control of this series, has been completely unable to corral Jamal Murray. Now the Jazz have only one more shot to do it.

We wanted Game 7, we’re getting Game 7.

The more pressing question is, will either defense be up to the task for a winner-take-all affair when the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz meet for the final time Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC) in their first-round Western Conference series?

Through six games, Denver’s Jamal Murray and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell have turned this into an individual shootout, something to savor over the past two weeks as well as a glimpse of a rivalry that might endure for many seasons.

The flip side is that neither the Nuggets nor the Jazz have done much to tamp down all their gaudy numbers. Mitchell has been carrying Utah with 38.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists, posting a pair of 50-point performances as the Jazz opened a 3-1 lead in the series.

But Murray has been better lately, getting 50 points Sunday on the heels of his 42 in Game 5 to get Denver back to even, forcing the bubble-bursting finale for one of their teams. Mitchell, by the way, still scored 44 in the 119-107 loss, the second blown opportunity for the No. 6 Jazz to put away No. 3 Denver.

No wonder Mitchell batted around a chair as he left the court at the end. No wonder his teammate Rudy Gobert kicked another chair after some blown defensive coverages midway through the fourth quarter. Of the 251 teams in playoff history that have led 3-1 in a best-of-seven series, only 11 have failed to win.

Recent evidence suggests Utah is about to become the 12th.

“Nobody’s down. We’re just [ticked] off because that was a winnable game,” Mitchell said. “No one’s down at all. We’ve got one more game. If we’re down now then we’ve already lost Game 7. There were things we could do to win this game.”

Offensively, the Jazz have an excuse, though none of them has mentioned it: Bojan Bogdanovic, their second-leading scorer before the virus shutdown (20.2 ppg, 41.4 3-point percentage), had surgery on his right wrist in May and was lost for the restart. They have missed him as a secondary threat to Mitchell, with each bucket now harder for the third-year combo guard. Those extra degrees of difficulty showed themselves Sunday in an abundance of isolation plays, with too little player cuts or ball movement.

Defensively, though, is where Utah took a step or two backward from its diligence earlier in the series. Mostly that meant allowing Murray – who has scored 142 points in the past three games – to play free and easy, to go where he wanted with the basketball and to find his rhythm without disruption.

Utah generally eschewed double teams or traps against Murray, relying on Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neal, Mitchell and others to try to do individually what clearly required two. Never mind not cutting the head off this Denver snake – the Jazz might as well have grabbed it by the tail, for all the good those defensive choices did.

“Well, last game, he got to the rim. And we wanted to take that away,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “Other than trapping him, we’re trying to make him hit contested shots. And he’s doing that. There were times in the game when we did try to trap him or hit him and get the ball out of his hands. But he’s playing terrific basketball.”

Murray was quiet in the third quarter, scoring only four points. But that’s when he got three of his assists, making sure that Denver center Nikola Jokic kept going. The Nuggets won the quarter anyway, 27-21, and then it was back to Murray for 21 points in the fourth.

The fourth-year scorer from Kentucky has made 57.4 percent of his 3-pointers in the series, shooting 58.5 percent overall, so it’s understandable that coach Michael Malone feels he is running out of superlatives to toss Murray’s way.

“I’ve been blessed to have been around some great players – LeBron [James], CP [Chris Paul], Steph Curry, Klay Thompson – but I’ve never seen a guy go 50, 42 and 50,” the Nuggets coach said. “And two of those games being elimination games.

“Talk about a young man putting a team on his back. And that will to win, to do whatever is necessary to find a way to get the win. And to do it – we haven’t played since Tuesday – with everything that has taken place in the the last three, four days. All the emotions, all the raw emotions, makes it that much more impressive.”

Murray has been one of the most active Nuggets in the NBA players’ protests against police brutality, using his shoes to deliver messages Sunday. He also has been one of the most affected by it all: the restrictions within the Disney bubble, the tension and the need to use the platform of the playoffs to deliver messages that included a three-day pause in scheduled games.

“I played with a lot of heart, I played with a lot of passion,” Murray told reporters afterward. “When you fight for something it means a whole lot more. I go out there and fight for something, win or lose.”

Mitchell talked about various small failings in Game 6 that added up to the rather large loss for Utah. Boxing out better on long rebounds, clogging lanes to the rim, getting into their men early in each Denver possession – he saw plenty to clean up.

But making each trip up the court less comfortable for Murray – maybe start with any – has to be the Jazz’s priority Tuesday. That or packing.

After Denver’s victory and a passionate on-court postgame interview, Murray was caught on camera, alone as he walked up a ramp to the Nuggets’ locker room. He knelt at one point, exhausted from everything on the court and off over the past several days.

He looked like Utah’s defense probably felt, pushed to a place they never wanted to be.

“As a fan you want Game 7. We didn’t want that,” Mitchell said. “That’s why we’re pretty upset because we had things under control and we let it slip. We feel like we could have had this series, but they didn’t want to go home. Now we don’t want to go home.”

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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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