Everybody expected the Jazz to crush Denver the way they did in Game 3 on Friday — right? — and the final count was a glorious/pathetic 124-87. The only questions to ask afterward were … 1) What the hell happened to the Nuggets? … and 2) What’s gotten into the Jazz?
The answers were … 1) They sucked and then quit. … and 2) A belly full of fire.
“They’re playing at a different level than us,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame. “… These are two games in a row where we’ve gotten our ass kicked.”
He added: “We give in too easy. We have to be more mentally tough.”
Truth and truth and truth and more truth.
And, for good measure, he tossed in: “I’m not coaching well enough, we’re not playing well enough.”
Wait … that was just the beginning.
Jamal Murray said: “We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. … We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and come back ready to play.”
And there was this from Nikola Jokic: “We didn’t know what they were doing.”
Maybe it was the Nuggets who didn’t know what the Nuggets were doing.
As Denver looked dead, for the second time in as many games, the Jazz now with a 2-1 lead in the series, Quin Snyder wanted everyone to believe the latest iteration of this playoff continuum was like watching “The Empire Strikes Back” or “The Two Towers” or “The Temple of Doom.” It was, by his evaluation, the middle installment of a movie trilogy, an episode in which nothing was completely at stake or fully determined, revealing only bursts of action and the lean now of momentum — whatever that’s worth — into what’s still bound to be a tough, extended series.
He said: “This is the playoffs … We have to maintain our focus and intensity. … We’re playing against a very good team. … You have focus on what’s in front of you. … We have to keep grinding and stay focused.”
Not if the Nuggets don’t get their stuff together.
Snyder has maintained his ongoing theme — “It’s a series … a series” — something he’s expressed either way, after a loss and after two blowout wins. That’s what a coach does. But the Jazz found the convincing means by which to keep the former singular and the latter plural, getting a second huge victory in three days.
Maybe the meaning of it all really is inconclusive.
But, man, if the Nuggets aren’t done, they looked like it.
It’s worth remembering that Denver came back from a 2-1 deficit last postseason to win a series against San Antonio, but they weren’t losing like this and the Spurs weren’t playing like the Jazz are now.
It’s fair to say that Utah’s last eight quarters are the best basketball a Snyder-coached Jazz team has ever played, including stretches after which any charitable person would have invoked a blessed mercy rule. The Jazz’s momentum-flow now seems like a flood.
Part of that washout included the rude return of Mike Conley, who marked the arrival of a newborn son earlier this week and followed it with the brutal clubbing of the poor, poor, pitiful Nuggets. He scored 27 points on 9-for-13 shooting, 7-for-8 on deep balls.
Malone attempted to make adjustments after Wednesday’s Jazz romp, what with Donovan Mitchell having his way, and then adjusted his adjustments when Rudy Gobert went for 20 points in Friday’s first half, and the Jazz easily got into the paint on dribble penetration over that same span. The Nuggets tried to switch on defense, and from there, the Jazz buried them with accurate perimeter shooting.
All told, Utah made 51 percent of its shots, 49 percent from beyond the arc.
Nothing Denver threw up defensively was anything Snyder, Mitchell, Conley, and Joe Ingles didn’t expect, as nearly all of the Jazz players saw the floor and made smart decisions, not unlike savvy quarterbacks spotting a blitz and delivering the ball to the right receiver at the right time, which is to say, the Jazz moved the ball, collecting 27 assists. When the Jazz get that many assists, they almost never lose.
Gobert thumped the Nugs early, feasting off the aforementioned feeds into the paint, where Jokic was no match for him, and Conley swung a socket wrench from the outside, helping the Jazz build a 20-point lead before the break. Thereafter, Malone admitted that his team pretty much punted on the rest of the game.
Snyder praised his players for their consistent effort.
Of Conley, he said: “He’s such a big part of what we do.”
Said Conley: “I’m thankful to be back.”
On Gobert, he complimented his “commitment to spacing, to trusting his teammates. He’s allowing our guards to drive the ball. He’s on the other end of those drives. … It’s hard to guard.”
Said Gobert: “No matter what defense they throw at us, we know how to make the right decisions.”
So they do.
The Nuggets, conversely, do not.
They are, in a word, confused.
They are, in another word, lost.
Afterward, while Denver stumbled and stewed, theJazz dialed in on the final installments of their suddenly promising trilogy.
There were few hints of celebration, nor signs of satisfaction. But the Jazz are confident, and they know they can beat the favored Nuggets, if they press on, if they continue to D up, if they continue to share the ball, if they create and make open shots.
They are more than just their ascending star Donovan Mitchell — who had 20 points in Game 3 — although they are definitely bolstered by his presence.
“We know what the goal is,” Gobert said. “We have a great group, a great opportunity.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.