Oh, baby, baby.
The Utah Jazz faced the Denver Nuggets in the opening game of their first-round playoff series Monday — without the two guys who were brought in before the season to make postseason victories easier to get — BOY-an Bogdanovic and BOY-Has-Safely-Arrived Mike Conley.
Bogdanovic is hurt and healing, Conley is a new dad and beaming at the birth of his infant son.
The rest of the Jazz? Well, they fought through their own pains of labor to stop the Nuggets. They gave up 54% shooting from deep — 22 bombs in all — and it cost them in a big way. Ultimately, they fell short in a sloppy overtime by the count of 135-125.
All of it happened, as the Jazz scrambled to make up for Conley’s absence. Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles correctly underscored in the run-up to the game that some things are more important than others. Welcoming a little one into the world is foremost among of them. The Jazz would welcome Conley back when the time is right, like Ingles said, “with open arms.”
The absent Jazz point guard named his newborn “Elijah.” Maybe he should have named him “Donovan,” after the man who broke the Jazz individual single-game playoff scoring record, going for 57 points. It was the third-highest scoring total by a player in playoff history.
It was nothing short of a remarkable performance by Donovan Mitchell, sullied only by a significant mistake. With 1:46 remaining in regulation and the Jazz up four, Mitchell was called for an eight-second violation on his way up the court. Denver’s Jamal Murray subsequently hit a long shot, cutting the lead to one.
Otherwise, who knows what might have happened.
If this first game proved anything, it’s that this series will be nothing if not captivating theater. Ebbs and flows will be part of the many acts, as was evidenced here. The Nuggets took a sizable lead early, the Jazz came back to tie it, the Nuggets went on a run, the Jazz went on a run, the Nuggets, the Jazz, the Nuggets, the Jazz, and, at the end, the Nuggets prevailed as the Jazz crumbled in the extra minutes.
Mitchell absolutely powered the Jazz all the way. He said beforehand he wanted to see the floor and set up his teammates before taking care of his own business. But he saved his teammates by handling that business, scoring on dunks, launches, layups, hangers, flips and squibs. He also had seven assists and nine rebounds.
If Mitchell wants to elevate his status in the league from All-Star to a star’s star — and don’t doubt that he does — his showing in Game 1 was a fine way for him to begin that transformation. And the best part, as far as the Jazz were concerned, that performance sparked them to better play, too. There was nothing selfish about it. Triggered by Mitchell, for instance, the Jazz outscored Denver 22-10 in the third quarter, taking a five-point lead.
Still, Mitchell was far from happy afterward, keying on the result, on what the Jazz as a whole have to do to prosper moving forward, saying: “Execution. That’s really it. That’s all there is.”
And that’s a lot.
Pointing at notable mistakes in the clutch, Quin Snyder said: “We made a few plays that cost us.”
Another clear observation: The marquee showdown — Gobert versus Nikola Jokic — is and will be fascinating to watch.
For his part, Gobert rolled to the basket for 17 points. At the defensive end, he did what he’s done for the better part of three seasons now. He discouraged a bevy of shots in the paint — something the Jazz as a team wanted to emphasize after earlier lapses in the bubble — and blocked four.
What the Jazz do — and did — defensively in a way is unfair to Gobert, though he’s grown accustomed to it. They trotted out their center with a bunch of undersized guys who essentially desert him down low, leaving him to try to control darn near everything himself. Against a bigger team like the Nuggets, that tosses a whole lot of responsibility on Gobert to keep an eye on Jokic, but also to meet everyone else at the rim. And he has to rebound, too.
Jokic did his damage, though, achieving what he’s mastered to such acclaim — pass the ball out of the post, bump and bump again down low, and fire up shots from deep. He collected 29 points, even with Gobert reaching this way and that, arms and hands stretched in every direction like an unfolding extension ladder. He also hit 4-of-7 shots from beyond the arc.
Lastly, the Jazz could not — but will have to — find a way to slow Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who connected on important shots in important moments, scoring 36 points and making six 3-pointers, greatly adding to Denver’s success overall.
The Nuggets — down a couple of players themselves — had struggled guarding the deep arc throughout their bubble experience. And since Snyder had encouraged his guys — pretty much everyone but Gobert — to bomb away, that was a key to the game.
Even with Mitchell’s brilliance, the Jazz fell six makes short of Denver’s long-ball total, despite launching six more attempts.
While Snyder characterized Mitchell’s performance as “elite,” he’s fully aware that he needs more from the rest of his players: “We have to be better. … Our guys can see it. … We need to be able to respond.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.