The Triple Team: Denver’s shotmaking outshines Donovan Mitchell’s superstar performance

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) passes the ball as teammate Rudy Gobert, center, and moves up court against Denver Nuggets' Jerami Grant (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 135-125 loss to the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Denver’s shotmaking wins the game

What a game. Denver and Utah went toe-to-toe with difficult shot make after difficult shot make in the fourth quarter, before the Jazz slipped in overtime.

First, Jamal Murray hit numerous difficult shots in the fourth quarter and overtime, scoring 36 points. He got just a little bit of separation from Joe Ingles — probably not the best matchup for him, but Royce O’Neale had five fouls — and hit pull-up jump shots over and over again.

“If guys are hitting stepback threes with a hand in their face, you tip your hat. That’s tough,” Quin Snyder said.

But Murray wasn’t alone. In fact, the whole Nuggets team was on fire from deep, shooting 22-41 from behind the arc. The Nuggets are typically just an average 3-point shooting team, averaging 35.9% from the deep, so shooting over 50% on big volume is unusual.

”We’re going to watch film and see what we can do better to try to make it a little tougher on them, but I really liked the way we came out and we made them work for everything they got,” Rudy Gobert said.

I think, in the end, Gobert is right to be pretty happy with that defensive performance. I know they allowed 126 points per 100 possessions, but it wasn’t that Denver was getting easy looks. The Nuggets only scored 40 points in the paint, allowed only 18 free-throws in an overtime game.

There are two ways to look at it: it’s honestly encouraging from a Jazz point of view that they’re capable of giving the Nuggets trouble, despite the shotmaking throughout. It’s very deflating, though, that they made the shots anyway.

2. Donovan Mitchell has the best game of his career

57 points? On 19-33 shooting, 6-15 from deep? Adding nine rebounds and seven assists? That’s otherworldly.

He’s the youngest player to score 50 in a playoff game since Michael Jordan scored 63 points.

We talked so much about how Torrey Craig had defended Mitchell well in their regular season matchups, and it’s true, he had. But Mitchell absolutely torched him tonight.

This play was everything for the Jazz: they were down 2 and absolutely needed to score. So they just gave Mitchell the ball with a head of steam — and he easily drew the foul. Does Craig do a whole lot wrong here? He was caught backpedaling, I suppose, but Mitchell just scooped his arm underneath Craig’s and went to the line. It was James Harden-esque.

But Mitchell didn’t do most of his scoring in isolation. Most of it came in the pick and roll, attacking Nikola Jokic in space. This scoop layup is beautiful, and so uniquely Mitchell: most other guards simply don’t have the wingspan to pull this off.

It will be interesting to see how much the Nuggets stick with that approach, to allow Jokic to drop to defend Mitchell. Various versions of Mitchell might have just been content to take the floater over a dropping big man, but the one we’ve seen in the bubble seems to have figured out that he can get around or over Jokic.

On the other hand, switching is not going to work either, because Mitchell obliterated switches. That’s especially true against Michael Porter Jr., who was very lurchy on defense. He’s a 6-10 wing, but his feet just don’t move fast enough to stay with Mitchell.

So do the Nuggets go high hedge? They tried that too, but Mitchell found some success in splitting the trap.

Even if he’s not able to split it every time — he tried to late but turned the ball over — the Jazz are usually pretty good at attacking 4-on-3 kind of situations. Maybe with their depth woes, they won’t be as elite at it, but playing defense this way also isn’t the Nuggets’ identity.

But to me, that’s what made this performance so impressive: the Nuggets threw the kitchen sink at Mitchell, and until he got tired in the overtime, he handled everything with ease. The Jazz have a player who can score 57 points in a playoff game against a good team. That’s pretty special.

3. Some other notes

It’s a playoff game 1, and so there’s just a ton of stuff to talk about. Let’s head straight to the bullet points:

• I thought Rudy Gobert did a really nice job on Jokic throughout, with Jokic just making a good number of threes as the only real issue. But he contained pick and roll and then got back to Jokic to make him take toughish shots, and I think that’s all you can realistically ask.

• Juwan Morgan got the start, and was a low-usage hustle and defense player. I thought he was perfect for the role, and I don’t think it’s an accident the Jazz were +17 when he was on the floor. I wish he’d see the backup center minutes too, which might push him up to 30 minutes per game. Who cares? Morgan is good!

• Emmanuel Mudiay and Tony Bradley were predictably very poor in their playoff minutes. It’s worrisome how those guys are the best options available at their positions. This is like when 8-year-olds can’t really shoot yet and so they just kinda fling it near the basket:

In particular, the signing of Nigel Williams-Goss has been a huge bust. There are better point guards available for the minimum, but the Jazz signed Mudiay and then a guy who had a middling season in his second year in Europe. That’s not good planning.

• Mitchell’s eight-second violation with under two minutes to go hurts — it’s the moment everyone is considering the turning point in the game, myself included. On the other hand, it’s a deadball turnover, not the worst thing in the world. The Murray three that followed was harsher.

• Scott Foster’s crew gave Jordan Clarkson and Quin Snyder two consecutive technical fouls in the second quarter. For a crew to do that in a playoff game, the conduct has to be egregious. But because of the lack of fans, we can hear exactly what Snyder said to earn his technical: it was not egregious, not at all. An extremely weak technical foul, and of course, one point more was all the Jazz needed.

• Ingles flat-out ran the offense in the first half before Mitchell took over and did pretty well at it. He needs to shoot the open threes he gets, no matter what.

• Michael Porter Jr. hit two transition pullup threes, but didn’t add anything else all game, and was a liability defensively. He’s an explosive scorer, and sure, he has the potential to raise Denver’s ceiling, but he’s very raw.

• Jordan Clarkson: 18 points on 17 minutes. It’s a weird form of consistency Clarkson has.

• The Jazz were terrific on the glass tonight, beating the Nuggets in offensive rebounds 16-8. Juwan Morgan and Royce O’Neale I thought were especially good down low.