If Saturday’s dramatic thriller was any indication, absolutely no one could complain about a first-round series between division rivals Utah and Denver.
It took two overtimes and two potentially seismic clock malfunctions, and somehow the Nuggets survived. Even after blowing separate six-point leads, once near the end of regulation and again in the first overtime session, the Nuggets withstood Jazz star Donovan Mitchell’s aerial assault to win 134-132 on Saturday.
The Nuggets improved to 46-24, still safely in the No. 3 seed behind the Los Angeles Clippers.
Playing in his first real NBA game in nearly five months, Jamal Murray sealed the victory with multiple clutch baskets, including a devastating 3-pointer late in the second overtime to put the Nuggets up 128-123. He was held out for the team’s first four seeding games in Orlando due to a hamstring issue, but put together a gutsy line of 23 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in 39 minutes. He was supposed to be restricted to 22 minutes.
“I totally blew through those minutes, and he was phenomenal,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
After Mitchell drained a game-tying jumper at the end of the first overtime, Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic appeared to tie it at 119 with a baseline bucket. However, with 3.4 seconds left, the clock inexplicably didn’t start. It was only after a timed review that the officials deemed Jokic’s basket occurred in 3.1 seconds. Another clock issue, this time with .3 seconds, gave Utah another chance to win it.
“Down the stretch, I thought Jamal and Nikola showed why they are one of the better dynamic duos in the entire NBA,” Malone said.
Jokic finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, anchoring the offense when Murray was laboring. Twelve of Jokic’s points came in the first overtime session as he seized control of the Nuggets’ fortunes.
Asked why he feels so comfortable in clutch situations, Jokic offered a small window into his mindset.
“Because there’s no pressure,” he said. “It’s 3, 2, 1, and you need to shoot. I cannot think about it.”
Denver’s sensational rookie Michael Porter Jr. added 23 points and 11 rebounds for his fourth consecutive double-double in the “bubble.”
Mitchell, whose clutch shooting gave the Jazz life on multiple occasions in the extra sessions, finished with 35 points and eight assists.
The Nuggets were up 104-98 with :19 seconds left in regulation before Murray was called for a foul on Mitchell, which cracked the door open for the Jazz. Next, Mitchell’s timely 3-pointer and game-tying layup erased the Nuggets’ lead and forced an overtime session that never should’ve been needed.
Still, the Nuggets, who once trailed by 18 in the first half, trudged on.
“Obviously that game was won and lost by both teams, quite a few times,” Malone said.
For the fifth consecutive game, the Nuggets were without regular starters Gary Harris and Will Barton due to injury. As the playoffs inch closer, with just three more seeding games until they begin, time is running out for both wings to get acclimated after a five-month layoff. If they can’t go once the playoffs arrive, expect their minutes to go to Porter and Torrey Craig.
After a lackluster first half, Jokic and Porter asserted themselves in the third quarter. Together, they spearheaded an early 19-11 run that momentarily cut the deficit to five. Jokic connected on two 3-pointers and Porter added one, while paving a consistent path to the free-throw line. The two combined for four points in the first half. By the end of the third quarter, they were up to 29. On the other end, the Nuggets finally turned off Utah’s 3-point faucet and trailed just 88-79 heading into the fourth.
When Malone was asked recently what factors he thought would be indicative of successful bubble teams, he inevitably came back to defense. Through four games in the bubble, Denver had the worst defensive rating among every single team. The crux of that number has been their inability to stop opponents’ 3-pointers.
Entering Saturday’s matchup, opponents had buried 46.3% of their 3-point attempts – an absurd rate that would kill any chance of playoff success if it continued in the weeks ahead.
“I think we have shown some signs of growth, while also continuing to struggle in a couple of key areas,” Malone said, citing 3-point defense and turnovers.
The Jazz sunk 22 3-pointers Saturday, though Denver’s defense was far more connected during the second-half comeback.
Malone also couldn’t ignore the context of how his team got to this place.
“I think no one has been dealt a tougher hand than we have in terms of the number of people that came with us to the bubble, originally on July 7,” he said.
In what should’ve been a battle between two of the best big men in the NBA, Gobert dominated his matchup with Jokic in the first half. Gobert looked far more spry and engaged, routinely beating Jokic with his off-ball movement.
One of the lone bright spots in the half came when Jokic found Grant with an over-the-shoulder circus pass that momentarily cut through Utah’s defense.
But outside of Murray, the rest of the Nuggets’ starters didn’t come out with the right energy, either, as the Jazz rolled to an early double-digit lead.
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