If the Utah Jazz are, indeed, targeting the Denver Nuggets for a potential playoff matchup, it may not ultimately produce the result they want, but it should — if nothing else — make for a scintillating series.
The Jazz played about as perfect a first half as they’re capable of in Saturday’s matchup, wasted the effort and an 18-point advantage by unraveling throughout the second half and falling apart in the fourth quarter, got rescued in the final seconds of regulation by Donovan Mitchell, rescued again by Mitchell after falling behind in overtime, withstood Rudy Gobert fouling out as well as two curious clock malfunctions in the final seconds of the first OT, rallied back again in the second extra session …
And then finally came up short, falling 134-132 in double overtime in an instant classic at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
“That was a game that was played on a pretty high level,” coach Quin Snyder surmised afterward in understated fashion.
Mitchell agreed, noting that he mostly liked the way his team played, but that the Nuggets simply played a little better when it mattered most.
“It’s not [about] who wanted it more — a bunch of games roll that way. We got some good looks, some good opportunities late; unfortunately, it breaks with Rudy fouling out,” said the All-Star guard. “But I think the biggest thing is we got the looks we wanted, we got the opportunities we wanted. There were certain things that they executed on, and that’s a credit to them, but I like the way we played as a whole, as a group. Everybody stepped up. I think it was huge. I think it was a great effort.”
Mitchell wound up with 35 points, including myriad clutch baskets starting from the final seconds of regulation and into the game’s two overtime sessions. But after Denver’s Jamal Murray missed a pair of free throws to give Utah one final chance, the Jazz’s lack of timeouts made it difficult to advance the ball, and Mitchell’s halfcourt heave at the horn did not come close.
The loss was the Jazz’s fourth in six games in the NBA bubble and dropped the team to 43-27 on the season.
It also left them lamenting what could have been.
All of the beautiful ball movement that resulted in Utah shooting 61.5% from the floor, going 12 of 21 (57.1%) from 3-point range and racking up 19 assists on 24 buckets in the first half all but evaporated late, as sequence after sequence of isolation offense yielded possession after possession of coming up empty.
Gobert totaled 22 points and 13 rebounds, but after dominating Denver in the first three quarters with hard cuts to the rim, he faltered as the final quarter went along and the Nuggets clamped down.
For much of that fourth period, Utah had only 10 points, and the All-Star center blamed himself afterward.
“In the fourth quarter, I think personally, I didn’t play the same way I played for the first three quarters,” Gobert said. “[Blowing that lead], it was mostly on me. I missed things that I probably won’t miss again — a layup, free throws, probably like 10 points just myself; layups, free throws, I should have dunked the ball and didn’t dunk it — a lot of things.”
In reality, he had plenty of help.
All those 3-pointers that went in early clanked off the rim late, as the Jazz made just 5 of 22 from deep in the third and fourth quarters combined.
Mitchell saved the day — or almost did, anyway — on several occasions thereafter. Even though, going into the final minute of the fourth quarter, he was just 6 for 20 from the field with five turnovers, he turned it on with the game on the line.
When it was looking like the game was lost in regulation, Mitchell came through with five quick points to tie it. After the team got off to a slow start in OT, missing their first seven shots, he brought them back, even hitting a go-ahead bucket with 3.4 seconds to go before Nikola Jokic’s driving layup forced a second OT. And in the final seconds there, he drained another improbable triple in the waning seconds, setting up the climactic finish.
In the end, though, while he was pleased that the Jazz battled, he was still disappointed with the things they didn’t do, the things that could have kept the game in their favor to begin with.
“The biggest thing is they got a lot of offensive rebounds, they became more aggressive — we’ve just got to do a better job of boxing out,” Mitchell said. “And then on top of that, they just made shots. When we start missing shots, we’ve got to turn our defense up to a higher level, which I don’t feel like we did to the full extent.”