Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 124-105 win over the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Nuggets adjust to try to stop Donovan Mitchell, get shredded defensively
Donovan Mitchell scored 57 points in Game 1. Naturally, the Nuggets didn’t want that to happen again.
So they changed their defense to bring high pressure on Mitchell when the Jazz set a screen. Given Denver’s size and length, they hoped to swallow Mitchell up.
They did not. Instead, Mitchell consistently made terrific reads with the resulting four-on-three advantage on the floor, the Jazz got open three after open three, and won the game with their best offensive rating in playoff history.
When a defense is that aggressive and focused on one player, you can exploit it in so many different ways. You can have Rudy Gobert set a screen and roll, leaving Clarkson open on the weak side.
You can have Royce O’Neale set a screen and slide out, leaving an open shot.
You can combine the last two ideas. You can have Ingles set a screen and pop, and then have Gobert come up and screen for him.
Mitchell’s making the right read, which is awesome. But give Quin Snyder credit here too for taking advantage of this in so many different ways.
Okay, so after getting killed on this to the tune of a 15-point lead, the Nuggets decided that they couldn’t help that much anymore. So they went to drop-big defense, and Mitchell just rose up and nailed two threes in a row.
Next, they decided to switch. But that left Mitchell to get a switch on Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets worst defender. That caused the Nuggets to panic, double team Mitchell, and you guessed it, leave someone open for a three.
Still an incredible pass from Mitchell, though.
That he was able to score 30 points despite being doubled, hedged, and trapped this much is absurd, and honestly mostly serves to show off what a good outside shooter Mitchell has become when he’s open. But that’s exactly what good players do: take whatever the defense gives them.
Mitchell is in Denver’s head at this point. If he keeps playing this well, with this level of exacting patience, the Jazz are winning this series.
2. Good defense from Utah, poor spacing from Denver
After Game 1, when the Jazz only allowed 40 points in the paint, I thought it was a telling defensive choice: the Jazz were going to block off the paint in order to let the Nuggets shoot from outside. Obviously, the way the Nuggets shot the ball in Game 1, it’s not obvious that the choice paid off.
But in Game 2, the Jazz executed their game plan in both areas much more effectively. Not only were the Nuggets shut down from above the arc defensively, but the paint defense was even better: the Nuggets only scored 28 points in the paint. And only half of those came at the rim, the rest from midrange floatery stuff from Nikola Jokic and crew.
Like, compare the shot charts of the starting lineups. The Nuggets had to live from the midrange, while the Jazz got exactly the shots they want.
It’s a tricky balance, though. The Jazz wanted to be more physical on the perimeter without leaving Gobert on his own inside. So they more frequently went over Murray on pick and rolls, which means Gobert has to step up to stop Murray. Then, someone slides over to stop the roll.
This was the most punctuating defensive play of the game, but it’s also exactly what I’m talking about: Murray’s ready to make the pocket pass to Jokic, but can’t. Gobert’s good at defending in space, plus Mitchell is there. But Mitchell can only be there because Porter is just hanging out in the paint. Gobert spikes the Jokic panic shot. This play is fun to watch over and over again for multiple reasons.
I expect the Nuggets offense to be more precise in Game 3, but it’s a tricky mix for them: they want cutters inside to take advantage of Jokic, but those cutters can also bring help at exactly the wrong time. They have some things to figure out.
3. Royce O’Neale’s backdoor passes to Mitchell
I don’t have children, but I have found something I can love and cherish just as much: this O’Neale pass to Mitchell early in the game.
Heck, TNT play-by-play man Bob Fitzgerald sounds like he’s at work making a child during the call of the play. It’s just that sneaky — O’Neale looks towards Morgan coming up from the corner as if he’s going to get the ball, then delivers a no-look spinner right into the hands of Mitchell for the easy layup. Great play design from Snyder, too: it was clearly a set the coaches drew up and figured would work.
Here’s another one: Mitchell receives a lob from O’Neale, which he catches and finishes with one hand with superhuman ease.
It’s telling that Snyder is drawing these plays up so that O’Neale is delivering these passes. He’s a very good passer, but having Joe Ingles running action at the same time allows for misdirection in a way that would be as effective if O’Neale were working to get open. With the ball in O’Neale’s hands, the defense rests a little, because they know he’s not going to attack.
Again, it shows the defensive downsides of paying this much attention to Mitchell: Torrey Craig is faceguarding him, which means he’s less likely to get the ball in traditional ways, but more susceptible to unexpected action like this.
After a sketchy Game 1, O’Neale needed a stronger Game 2. He found himself through passes like these, getting into the flow of the offense before really feeling comfortable shooting the ball himself. I wish he’d shoot more frequently early, to be sure, but with setups like this, it’s hard to complain too much.