Rock-solid answers came with force on Wednesday in Game 2 of the Jazz-Nuggets playoff series, sweet answers that supplanted the Jazz’s sour suspicions that hovered beforehand. Now it’s on Denver to discover useful responses.
Foremost among Utah’s assortment of sour-turned-sweet was this: Not only can the Jazz hang with the Nuggets, they can cancel out their firepower and blow past it — on attack and with enough physical resistance at the defensive end.
And the final numbers on the board evidenced that thunderous — if surprising — declaration: Jazz 124, Nuggets 105.
Two other significant numbers stood out: Utah with 32 assists and 20 made bombs. One more: 51.7 percent shooting.
It’s remarkable what happens to a team — the energy created at both ends — when the shots drop. And drop, they did.
When the margin’s tight, as it almost always has been when these two teams meet, the result seemed foregone on account of the fact that at the end of games Denver had a way of hitting the throttle hard while the Jazz blew engine parts all over the road.
In this outing, Utah never let it come to that.
The Jazz built a 13-point first-half lead, and continued hammering onto it, powering straight through to the finish. They scored more points — 43 — in the third quarter than any Jazz team ever had. It was a full-blown dominant performance.
As Donovan Mitchell — 30 points on just 14 shots, eight assists — and Rudy Gobert — 19 points, 7 boards, 2 blocks, and a hundred discouraged attempts — walked off the floor, they knew their challenge of finding a way to repair, reform and rearrange the inevitable was possible, after all.
“We had a good night,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. He warned further, “It’s a series. … The key word is series.”
Which was his way of emphasizing that a whole lot of work remains.
As for the work already done, the Jazz stars got loads of help en route. Jordan Clarkson came off the bench to score 26 points, Joe Ingles went for 18 and six assists, and others threw in bits and pieces. In a demonstration of classic Jazz basketball, the ball popped around the perimeter and into the paint.
“We were unselfish and made the right plays,” Snyder said.
Added Mitchell: “We’ve got a lot of guys who are ready to fight. … We stayed locked in and communicated.”
Mitchell’s composure and conscientiousness was particularly impressive.
After putting up his 57 points in Game 1, he eased into the action this time around, patiently looking for teammates to get them involved in the early going, satisfied to do so. He had just six first-half points. In the third quarter, sensing a need to stretch a lead that otherwise might have shrunk, his scoring exploded for 21. And when he was done, the thing was pretty much done.
To put up 33 shots in an historic performance that got the attention of everyone in the bubble, and to follow it up with an equally spectacular, but more subdued and important showing in Game 2, it’s impressive.
Mitchell is playing in a way that gives truth to what Snyder said about him, citing and underscoring his patience and intelligence: “It shows how much he thinks the game.”
Nuggets coach Mike Malone spent many hours between games dialing in on ways for his defenders to gang up on Mitchell, to throw up enough flak to force him to twist and turn in the dodge. They pressured him in ways they hadn’t previously. He used his cuts and spins and jumpers to great advantage, especially from deep, making 6 of 7 from behind the arc, while setting up his teammates, too.
In counterattack, Jamal Murray could not present the same challenges as he did in the first game, unable to move freely around the court, maneuvering for those same sure-and-solid looks and makes. The Jazz were determined on many possessions to get in his way. They did not want his achievements to match Mitchell’s, knowing that’s an advantage the Jazz must keep on their side of the ledger.
The much-anticipated matchup at the center of this hardwood universe — Gobert versus Nikola Jokic — is looking like more of a draw. Game 1 was Nikola’s, Game 2 Rudy’s.
The series’ point totals strongly lean toward Jokic, 57 to 36, and while that’s not completely fair, considering Gobert’s responsibilities are more comprehensive than focusing solely on Jokic, Jokic’s presence at his team’s offensive end is equally comprehensive. His effectiveness is apparent to all with eyes to see, bumping and battling down low, hitting shots from distance, and involving Nuggets everywhere.
Even Gobert’s substantial presence can’t derail it.
But the Jazz big man did load up, at both ends, to substantial effect, limiting the Nuggets’ points in the paint, showing the defensive prowess by which he’s made his name. His volleyball-like swat of Jokic in the first half was memorable.
Afterward, Gobert credited the Jazz’s overall physicality for keeping Denver in check.
“The biggest thing is making it tough,” Mitchell concurred.
That, the Jazz did.
For one game.
“Now,” Mitchell said, “we have to do it again in Game 3.”
Let’s say it all plain and clear: Without Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz must reach deep to defeat these Nuggets. They pretty much gave up Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, as well as $50 million, to secure the two absentees for opportunities exactly like this one against Denver, and neither is present to capitalize. Conley returns to the lineup Friday and with nothing concluded here thus far his presence will be greeted, as Ingles said, “with open arms.”
But the way the Jazz owned the Nuggets without either of them bolstered the confidence of a team that, in truth, wasn’t quite sure what it could accomplish against a favored playoff opponent. It still will take everything the Jazz have, and perhaps a bit more than they appear to have, to get past Denver.
The Nugs are gifted and deep. They, too, are missing a couple of pieces to injury, but their talent from start to finish is vast and varied. The Jazz have two stars, but, on Wednesday, Ingles and Clarkson joined the party. The rest of the guys — God bless them — helped how and where they could.
Mitchell needs that help. He cannot win playoff games on his own. That’s a statement of fact that led to the acquisitions that have been unavailable thus far. But with help, it’s doable — and Wednesday’s result proved it.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.