Donovan Mitchell was doing it all. Draining 3s. Dishing dimes. Slithering into the lane and throwing down double-clutch dunks. Bulldozing through contact and earning trips to the free-throw line.
Coming in burdened with both a short-handed team and also the narrative of being a questionable playoff performer, the 23-year-old did everything he could Monday afternoon — his 57 points were the third-most by any player in NBA playoff history — to put the Utah Jazz on his back and carry them to victory in their 2020 postseason opener.
Except it wasn’t enough. Again.
For the fourth time in as many matchups with the Nuggets this year, the Jazz could not come through when it counted, falling 135-125 in overtime in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
After being so efficient on both ends for most of the second half, Utah fell apart in the extra five minutes, running out of steam, getting sloppy, committing four turnovers in a span of 180 seconds, and also failing to contain Jamal Murray, who poured in 36 points (including 20 in the fourth quarter and overtime combined) and nine assists.
And so, while coach Quin Snyder praised Mitchell for his “elite performance” and for “coming up with key shots for us time and time again,” the third-year guard was more focused afterward on his 8-second violation with 1 minute, 46 seconds left in regulation and the Jazz up four, which was followed seven seconds later by a Murray 3-pointer that swung the momentum for good.
“That sequence changed the whole game,” Mitchell said. “… That’s my fault as a leader and as a point guard at that time. That’s terrible on my part. I’ve got to be more aware. That was a crucial part of the game.”
Of course, the Jazz don’t get to that part of the game without Mitchell being pretty incredible otherwise.
With Bojan Bogdanovic out due to wrist surgery, and Mike Conley away from the team following the Sunday birth of his third child, the Jazz came in undermanned and outgunned. At least, that’s how it looked in the first half, as Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. dominated the first quarter, Murray got rolling in the second, and Denver hit a franchise-record 11 3-pointers in the opening 24 minutes.
After hitting just 1 of 5 shots in the first quarter, Mitchell was on fire thereafter, though.
He dropped in 17 points in the second quarter, a pedestrian-by-comparison 10 in the third (though Utah not only battled back, but surged ahead and took control in that stretch), and an eye-popping 22 in the fourth, as the teams went back-and-forth. (He would also finish with nine rebounds and seven assists, and went 13-for-13 from the free-throw line.)
Meanwhile, as the game progressed, Utah did plenty to adjust and counterattack.
After those 11 treys by Denver in the first two quarters, the Jazz did a much better job chasing shooters off the line in the third, where the Nuggets only managed a single make from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, rookie big man Juwan Morgan — a surprise starter in place of Conley — helped solidify a frontline that neutralized much of Denver’s size and length. The Jazz came in universally concerned about the Nuggets’ prowess with offensive rebounding and second-chance points — then limited them to eight and 10 of those, respectively.
Still, though, in the end, it came down to Denver’s execution being better when it mattered most.
In the overtime, Mitchell threw the ball away on an inbound pass when Rudy Gobert slipped down; Gobert also threw a bad pass; Joe Ingles lost the ball out of bounds; and then Mitchell coughed the ball up to Nikola Jokic — all of that on four straight possessions in overtime.
“It’s all about being a little tougher mentally,” said Gobert, who finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocks. “We know that all those little details, those little turnovers, those little fouls, all that kind of stuff is really going to matter, especially at the end of close games.”
Meanwhile, the Nuggets consistently made the Jazz pay with their shot-making. They got their outside shooting going again in the fourth quarter and overtime, and Denver finished 22 of 41 from deep (53.7%) for the game. They also outscored Utah 20-10 in the extra session.
“You’re not gonna stop Jamal Murray, you’re not gonna stop Jokic, so you just have to adjust,” Snyder said “… But if guys are hitting step-back 3s with a hand in their face, you tip your cap to ‘em.”
And you continue to adjust.
Utah got a nice performance from Ingles, who took a needed leap forward in aggression and finished with 19 points, six assists and five rebounds. Jordan Clarkson was also big off the bench, racking up a quick-twitch 18 points (though he was just 2 for 9 from deep).
Still, the defeat was a disappointment, especially considering Mitchell’s herculean effort.
But in the end, he made it a point to note that the Jazz can’t afford to turn this loss into more than it was.
“I told the guys in the locker room, we could lose by 60, we could lose by one; we lost by 10 tonight, but it’s Game 1. It’s one loss. It counts the same. It’s not different,” Mitchell said. “I think, obviously, it’s tough to lose the first game, but now we kind of see what their approach is and they see ours, but there are a lot of things we can control. … There’s little things we can control and fix, but at the end of the day, we’re not overreacting. It’s one game. We got to go back out there and be ready for Game 2.”