2020 NBA Playoffs

2020 NBA Playoffs

As Nuggets move on past Jazz, Rockets and Thunder prepare for their own Game 7 battle

The two Western Conference series have been the highlight of the first round, featuring tense battles and scintillating individual performances

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

ORLANDO — Seven down, seven to go.

That’s seven as in Game 7, a pair of them actually here in the playoffs, where defining moments gripped the Jazz and Nuggets on Tuesday and will seek out the Rockets and Thunder on Wednesday.

With the rest of the NBA playoffs either already moved on, these four teams staged the only real and sustained drama in the first round. The win-or-else games raised questions: Could Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray keep up their historic counter punching (not quite), and will a loss to Oklahoma City prove costly in some manner to the Rockets (most likely)?

The Jazz and Nuggets took their series right down to the seventh-game buzzer — like, what else can you ask for? — when Mike Conley’s 3-point shot rimmed out, causing Mitchell to fall out, allowing Murray and the Nuggets to move on after falling behind 3-1 in the series.

“A good series to watch,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “High level performances. Game 7 is something you can feel and experience.”

It was quite the struggle between Rocky Mountain rivals and especially between Mitchell and Murray, a pair of 23-year-old guards who sizzled for most of the six previous games yet were clearly gassed in the seventh.

Before Tuesday’s winner-take-all, they’d combined for four 50-point games, with Mitchell averaging 38.7 points in the series and Murray averaging 47.3 in the previous three games. Eventually, their 475 combined points were the most ever by two players in a series. And they were the picture of efficiency as well by shooting above 50 percent from the floor and beyond the arc.

But in the end, it was endurance that decided the outcome, not either player. Murray needed 21 shots to score 17 points while Mitchell had the ball poked away by Gary Harris on Utah’s penultimate possession.

It was understandable that Mitchell collapsed to the floor in a mix of (mostly) frustration and exhaustion once the buzzer sounded.

“It was a great battle and it’s not only going to be for one year. We expect to see a lot of each other in the future,” said Murray. “He raises my game, I raise his. It’s a whole lot of fun. We bring out the best in each other.”

This was a relief for the Nuggets, who played their third straight seven-game series dating back to last season, beating the Spurs and losing to the Blazers previously. Perhaps those tense experiences helped pull Denver through Tuesday.

“I don’t know how many players have had the chance to play in three Game 7s in two years,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “That comfort of being there before helps. Game 7s come down to possessions, they come down to rebounds, they come down to two evenly matched teams.”

Meanwhile, the Rockets are reeling after losing three of the last four games in this series, buried under the rubble of turnovers, a lack of an answer for Chris Paul and a gimpy Russell Westbrook.

“There’s no excuse for the losses we’ve had in this series,” Rockets forward PJ Tucker said.

Another poor showing from the Rockets might mean a shakeup is coming. Is Mike D’Antoni coaching for his future in Houston? That’s likely the case, if only because he lacks a contractual cushion and had to fight for stability the last time he and the Rockets discussed his future.

Any dismissal of D’Antoni might be due to face-saving by the Rockets, who surrendered assets along with Paul to Oklahoma City and in the short term will have nothing but a first-round ouster to show for it with a loss Wednesday. Remember, with James Harden in his prime, they’re a win-now team, or at least a win-soon team.

And also two evenly matched players. While Murray moves on to see the Clippers starting Thursday, Mitchell goes home with a bit of solace.

“We hope Donovan continues to grow through this leap he’s making,” Conley said.

The more graver picture is the long-term. Harden would burn yet another year without reaching the NBA Finals with Houston, and that would be tough to swallow for someone who has been in the Kia MVP discussion for the last five years, winning that trophy once.

And of course it could be a referendum on Westbrook, who’s coming off a seven-turnover game. Before arriving in Houston he averaged a triple-double over three seasons and won the MVP. But his shooting, especially from deep, has badly regressed; he’s fallen under 30 percent in five of the last six seasons. Defenders are giving him space, the sign of disrespect, and Westbrook has all but bailed on the 3-pointer anyway.

He’s now relying almost exclusively on his burst and quickness. Those skills, however, tend to fade once players age, and in addition to dealing with recovery from a strained right quad, Westbrook turns 32 in November.

Besides Paul, the price for Westbrook was considerable. Houston also sent first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and gave OKC the right to swap picks in 2021 and 2025. If Westbrook suffers any significant decline, those picks could be gold.

And that underlines the position OKC is in right now.

First, consider that Paul’s impact has been massive this season, making OKC a mild surprise in 2019-20. Then there’s his conditioning. Paul appears to be in the best shape in years, proof of his commitment and determination to remain one of the league’s elite point guards even after 15 seasons. Paul was thought to be ready for a gradual downhill slide at the time, and he’ll turn 36 next season.

“Physically he looks really good,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “He played 40-something minutes the other night. And he’s a competitor, we know that.”

Once you consider what OKC received in exchange for Westbrook and Paul George, the only potential downside is Paul’s remaining contact — it’s now two years and $88 million — yet given the value he’s shown, maybe that money isn’t an albatross after all.

And then, the goodies from those two deals: Sam Presti, the GM, squeezed the Clippers and Rockets for a total of seven first-round picks and the right to swap four additional first-round picks over the next six years, plus a promising young guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a solid starter in Danilo Gallinari. The Thunder will also shed contracts belonging to Steven Adams and Dennis Schroeder next summer, leaving Paul on the books as the only player who’ll make eight figures.

That’s a war chest of assets and also future financial flexibility for a rebuilding team, yet the Thunder remain a playoff team. So OKC is playing with house money with this Game 7 because the last 12 months have been blissful no matter what.

Before he galloped to the locker room with his jubilant and relieved Nuggets teammates after the win, Murray raced toward Mitchell and lifted him up. They hugged it out, wished each other well, a fitting scene for a Nuggets-Jazz series that had everything.

And what will be the everlasting snapshot of Rockets-Thunder? Hard to tell, but D’Antoni suspects raw emotion will determine the outcome.

“The players will be engaged and the bench will be engaged,” D’Antoni said. “We just have to be better than them and move forward. We know what they have to do. You have to get your mind right. We know we’ve been in a fight.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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