Donovan Mitchell deservedly garnered national attention for his brilliant, dominant play in the first two games of the Utah Jazz’s first-round series against the Denver Nuggets.
Turns out, Utah’s got some other players capable of dominating, too.
Mike Conley casually nailed seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points in his return from a two-game hiatus, while Rudy Gobert added 24 points and 14 rebounds in a forceful display down low, as the Jazz cruised to their second straight blowout victory, 124-87, in Game 3 on Friday to take a 2-1 lead of their first-round series.
Mitchell had a pedestrian-by-comparison 20 points and four rebounds, as Utah controlled the game pretty much from start to finish, trailing only once by a single point, while leading by as many as 39.
Conley said that after missing the first two playoff games due to leaving the bubble on Sunday morning to be with his family for the birth of his son Elijah, and then being sequestered upon his return, he was itching to get out there and make an impact.
“If you knew what I just went through, the quarantine and being locked up all day and [only] being able to go outside for 30 minutes a day just to dribble the ball in a parking lot and not being able to play, being on that court was all I was thinking about, other than my family,” Conley said. “So I’m just thankful to be back, and looking forward to the rest of the series.”
The Nuggets probably can’t say the same until they figure out some adjustments.
Denver coach Michael Malone said on Thursday that the Jazz had taken control of the series by dominating with 3-point shooting, points in the paint, and offensive rebounding, and that for the Nuggets to regain control of the series, they’d have to take away two of those three components.
In what turned out to be a demoralizing performance, they took away zero.
Utah started the game hitting just 1 of 9 tries from 3-point range in the first quarter, but drilled 17 of its next 28 to finish with a 48.6% conversion rate for the game. Meanwhile, with Gobert taking it right at Nuggets counterpart Nikola Jokic, Utah outscored Denver 48-32 in the paint. The offensive rebounds were more comparable, but the Jazz still got 13 of them.
As lethally efficient as the Jazz were on offense, they were arguably just as good on defense, though.
The Nuggets committed six turnovers in the first quarter and scored only 14 points. As the game went on, Gobert’s presence down low had a clear impact on the Nuggets’ willingness to drive into the paint and attempt shots at the rim. Meanwhile, the 3-point efficiency Denver had in Games 1 and 2 also disappeared, as they converted just 12 of 38 attempts Friday (31.6%). Jokic and Jamal Murray combined for just 27 points on 11-for-29 shooting.
“The good thing about tonight is that we played our game — there’s nothing that we did tonight that I haven’t seen this team do before,” Gobert said. “You know, we’re playing hard, communicating on defense, and then offensively, just moving the ball. I know that Mike can make those shots every night, I know that Georges [Niang], Donovan, Joe [Ingles] can all make those shots every night.”
JAZZ 124, NUGGETS 87
• Mike Conley buries seven 3s and totals 27 points in his return to action, as the Jazz take a 2-1 series lead.
• Rudy Gobert scores 20 of his 24 points before halftime and adds 14 rebounds.
• Denver stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray score just 27 points combined on 11-for-29 shooting.
Still, this game was mostly about Conley and Gobert.
Snyder said Thursday that he had zero concerns about reintegrating Conley into the gameplan, that him missing two games was the functional equivalent of him sitting out six minutes of a quarter. And indeed, the veteran point guard barely missed a beat.
He hit Utah’s only 3-pointer of the first quarter, then buried a pair early in the second to get Utah rolling beyond the arc. After the Nuggets cut a 25-point deficit to 14 just before halftime as the Jazz grew stagnant, he nailed one more from deep to restore momentum.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s a terrific player. He’s found a rhythm as the season’s gone on and it shows,” Snyder said after Game 3. “Obviously, it was important for him to go home and be with his family. I know how glad our guys were to see him back. He played a terrific game. Really, that’s who he is.”
As for Gobert, well, he was pretty much unstoppable before the break. After scoring 17 points in Game 1 and 19 in Game 2, he had 20 in the first two quarters alone of Game 3. Time after time, he would set a screen for a ballhandler somewhere between the 3-point and free-throw lines, roll hard to the hoop, take in a pass, and throw down a dunk.
In the second half, desperate to change the momentum, Malone swapped out high-scoring but defensively-deficient rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. for athletic big man Jerami Grant. The Jazz, however, realizing this created a lineup in which only two of Denver’s five players on the court were at all capable of handling the ball and creating shots, poured on the pressure.
The defensive intensity went up, as did the offensive efficiency in concert, and Utah won the quarter 35-20, giving the Jazz a 32-point lead and effectively putting the game away.
Asked what changed in terms of Utah going from bricking almost everything to hitting almost everything beyond the arc, Jokic was at a loss to explain it.
“I don’t know if we changed anything, to be honest. They were just getting open shots,” Jokic said. “They only took a couple of pull-up 3s. So, I don’t know. Did something drastically change? I’m not sure.”
Conley, meanwhile, noted afterwards how important it is for the Jazz not to change their mentality, even after consecutive routs.
“Each win is important; for us to have two right now is great. But also, whether you win by one or 20, they’re all just one win. And the same way if you lose. If we were to lose tonight by 20 points, we have to come back and lace ‘em up and come with adjustments for the next game,” he said. “I’ve been here, I know that the series can shift in so many different ways. We’ve just got to continue to keep fighting, continue to be consistent, to play together, and have fun while we do it.”
With the Jazz offense growing stagnant and Denver trimming a 25-point deficit to 14 right before the break, Mike Conley restores order with his fourth 3-pointer of the opening half.
14 • The Jazz set the defensive tone early, and the Nuggets’ resulting six turnovers led to just 14 first-quarter points.
Game 4 comes on Sunday and features the first evening start, with tipoff slated for 7 p.m. MT.