Preview: Denver Nuggets look to extend series in Game 6 against Jazz

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Early in the third quarter of Game 5, it all looked over for the Denver Nuggets. Down 15 points and on the brink of elimination, the Nuggets could have folded and begun their offseason earlier than expected.

However, Jamal Murray wouldn’t let Denver lose, as he once again dazzled with a display of clutch shot-making and creation for the offense, while head coach Michael Malone called on PJ Dozier and Michael Porter Jr. to close the game and both providing key sparks.

Murray finished with 42 points on 17-of-26 shooting from the field, eight assists, eight rebounds and zero turnovers. Down the stretch, the 23-year-old simply took over with a mix of 3-pointers and difficult mid-range jumpers. Murray received a nice boost from Nikola Jokić, who set the tone early with 21 first-quarter points, a franchise playoff record. The Serbian big man would finish with 31 points and a career-high seven 3-pointers.

Utah’s offense operated at a high level in the first half, but Denver’s defense tightened up in the second half, holding the Jazz to 44 points in the final 24 minutes of action. Utah still converted a high percentage of its 3-point attempts and shot 50 percent from the field but couldn’t get enough stops to end the series.

The series will continue for at least another game, as Denver will look to maintain momentum and push Utah to a Game 7.

Here are three storylines to focus on in Game 6.

Blue Arrow brilliance

Forget playing like an All-Star. Jamal Murray has been playing like an All-NBA guard during this first-round series. Over the past two games, the former No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 Draft has dropped 92 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, dished out 15 assists and hasn’t committed a single turnover.

Yes, you read that right. In 84 minutes over the past two games, Murray hasn’t coughed up the ball once.

"The young man is growing up and turning into a superstar on the biggest stage and I couldn't be more proud of him,” Malone said following Game 5.

With Murray in a hot streak the likes of which we’ve rarely seen, the Nuggets will be in every game as long as their execution on the defensive end is solid. The two-man game between Murray and Jokić becomes even more unstoppable with both players executing efficiently and knocking down their shots, especially from beyond the arc.

Look for the Nuggets to continue running the offense through those two, especially with Murray having the ball in his hands in order to breakdown the defense and either finish around the rim or kick out to open shooters.

Who will step up for Denver off the bench?

After not playing in Game 4, PJ Dozier was called upon to provide defense off the bench in game 5, especially down the stretch of the game.

"I thought PJ Dozier was phenomenal tonight, an unsung hero," Malone said Tuesday.

The stats reflect that sentiment. Dozier finished a game-high +21 in his 20 minutes of action, contributing three points, four rebounds, three assists and a key block in the fourth quarter.

With just under three minutes remaining and Denver nursing a two-point lead, Dozier tipped a loose ball to Murray, who knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Nuggets a five-point lead. Denver wouldn’t look back and went on to secure the victory after that momentum-boosting play.

Speaking of sparks off the bench, Porter Jr. finished +18 on the night in Game 5 as he dropped 15 points and grabbed five rebounds in his 34 minutes of action. Although Porter Jr. is still getting accustomed to defending at a high level, he had some bright moments on that end of the floor in the fourth quarter, including an impressive block on Jordan Clarkson.

If Malone can get quality performances from Dozier and Porter Jr. in Game 6, it will help Denver’s defense and provide more options on the offensive end to support Jokić and Murray.

More defensive adjustments for the Nuggets

Throughout the first half of Game 5, Malone opted to stick with a drop coverage when defending the pick-and-roll. This opened up opportunities for pull-up 3-pointers and quality mid-range looks for Utah’s ball-handlers and the Jazz dropped 63 points in the first half.

In the second half, the Nuggets switched to their more aggressive pick-and-roll coverage, opting to have Jokic closer to the level of the screen to hedge and prevent downhill drives from Utah’s ball-handlers. That adjustment coupled with fighting through or around screens to avoid switching on the perimeter made a big difference in Denver’s success on that end of the floor.

Gary Harris’ status is still unknown for Game 6, but Malone may have stumbled on an effective mix of both defensive schemes, with an emphasis on avoiding simple switches when guarding on the perimeter.

Utah’s spread pick-and-roll attack will always be a challenge for Denver to shut down, but by providing different looks for Utah’s ball-handlers to diagnose throughout the game, the Nuggets have a better chance of getting enough stops to let Jokić and Murray drive the offense to another win.

Game 6 will tip at 6:30 p.m. MT Sunday and will air on Altitude TV and TNT (Radio: KKSE 92.5FM).

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