Denver advanced to the second round of the playoffs by virtue of a 80–78 win over Utah on Tuesday. The Nuggets will face the two-seed Clippers in the conference semifinals.
What the hell were the Nuggets thinking?
After a clutch poke from Gary Harris knocked the ball out of Donovan Mitchell’s hands, Jamal Murray was racing down the floor with a two-point lead and only precious seconds left against the Jazz on Tuesday. All Murray had to do was dribble out the clock or wait to be fouled and pick up easy points at the line. Instead, he ran a fastbreak and dished a pass to Torrey Craig, who missed a routine layup, improbably giving Utah one more chance to tie or win the game. In easily the wildest moment of the NBA restart, Gobert scooped up Craig’s miss and found Mike Conley streaking up the left wing, only for Conley to have his series-winning three rim out as time expired—all while a wide-open Mitchell watched from the opposite side of the three-point line.
It wasn’t the best game, but Tuesday’s Game 7 between the Jazz and Nuggets was certainly a thrilling one. Here are three thoughts on the series finale.
Mitchell vs. Murray Couldn’t Last Forever
After trading huge scoring binges in the first six games, both Mitchell and Murray came back down to earth in their final individual battle. Mitchell finished with 22 points on 9-of-22 shooting, and added only one assist. Murray struggled even more, scoring 17 points on 7-of-21 from the field. The two young stars combined to hit only three threes and four free throws, a far cry from the explosive numbers they were putting up through games one-to-six. Both players looked off for most of the night, save for a spurt from Donovan in the third quarter. In the final frame of a tight game, Mitchell and Murray combined for only six points, which meant their teammates had to step up.
In the first half, Denver was getting great offense from its role players. Murray was passing out of hard doubles, and his teammates were capitalizing on the open looks. In the second half, Gobert was spectacular for the Jazz. He put up a double-double of 10 points and 12 boards in the fourth quarter alone, dominating the paint as the Nuggets’ defense scrambled to keep Mitchell from going off.
It was Nikola Jokic—the Joker—who got the last laugh, however. The All-Star center was steady all night, finishing with 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists despite some foul trouble. Jokic hit the eventual game-winner, a looping, hook-esque shot over Gobert with under 30 seconds to go that proved to be the difference. With shooters spread around Jokic, Utah opted to leave Gobert—one of the best defensive players in the league—in one-on-one coverage on Jokic in the post. It wasn’t a pretty shot, as it almost never is for Jokic, but he made the Jazz pay for not bringing a double.
Gary Harris’s Defense Was Spectacular
The box score will not do Harris justice for his performance in Game 7. In only his second game back from injury, Harris played 26 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter. His defense was instrumental in keeping Mitchell from putting the game away himself. Watching Harris work away from the play is a delight. He simply refused to let Mitchell touch the ball on several possessions down the stretch, forcing Utah to score without running offense through its best player. He coerced Quin Snyder to use his last timeout before the final sequence of the game because of how close he stuck to Mitchell. And then Harris made the key deflection that led to Mitchell’s final turnover.
The Nuggets aren’t going to transform into a defensive juggernaut overnight. But for stretches over the last two seasons, Denver has at times played like a top-ten defense. Harris, when healthy, is a huge reason for those successful stints. He couldn’t have returned a moment too soon in this series, with the Jazz torching the Nuggets from all over the floor. As important as Harris was against Mitchell and Utah, Denver will need him even more in the next round. The Clippers have elite talent on the wing in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams. Expect Harris’s minutes to continue to creep up.
So What’s Next?
The Nuggets will face the Clips, who entered this season as title favorites. It’s a tough matchup for Denver. Los Angeles has more length on the wing, and can force Jokic into awkward defensive possessions by playing smaller. I would expect Denver’s closing group from Game 7—Murray, Harris, Craig, Jerami Grant, and Jokic—to clock a lot of time together in this series.
The Jazz have to be a little shellshocked after squandering a 3–1 lead. Utah’s offense looked unstoppable before sputtering at times in games five and six, and then cratering in Game 7. I’m sure Utah will wonder how this series would have been different if Bojan Bogdanovic was healthy. At the same time, the Jazz have to be critical of the current makeup of the roster. Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neal have had great moments over the last couple seasons, but both became targets of Murray in this series. Conley was brought in to help take the pressure off Mitchell in the backcourt, and while he barely missed the series-winning shot, Conley scored only two points in the fourth on 1-of-7 shooting.
Of course, there will be questions about the Mitchell and Gobert partnership as well. Both have succeeded together, even if the fit is not perfect. But with only one playoff series win in the last three years, Mitchell soon due for an extension, and Gobert coming up on a contract year, now could be a natural time for Utah to re-evaluate its plan moving forward.