At the end, Michael Malone stood in front of his bench, looking like a man who had just attempted a run through the gates of hell — and failed to clear them.
Those closed gates were the long arms of Rudy Gobert and the soft, sweet touch of Donovan Mitchell.
For Malone and his Denver Nuggets, Sunday night’s Game 4 against the Jazz was more about escaping a burning kind of gawd-awful damnation than it was rearranging switching defenses or giving help on Mitchell and Gobert. Erudite adjusting and strategizing was good for who it was for, and on this particular occasion that who was not the Nugs.
No, they needed to reach down a little deeper. This was more an exercise in desperation and will, focus and force than it was any bits of new basketball brilliance.
They had tried that last methodology before, a couple of times this past week, watching it slam into a brick wall, smoldering in a heap of two consecutive defeats.
Make it three.
“All we did is win Game 4,” Mitchell said, afterward. “… We’ve got to close this series out.”
The Nuggets were much more energized this time, more aggressive on attack from the start. Denver took the ball into the paint and distributed it outside, led by Jamal Murray (50 points) and Nikola Jokic (29), each strong from the outset.
Murray was spectacular.
Still, Denver could not manage a reversal of momentum and fortune, losing to the Jazz, 129-127, falling behind in their playoff series, 3-1, and losing something even worse — hope. It was a failure that had looked likely, based on the way the Nuggets had allowed themselves to get rolled and then quit in the third game.
Grit and gumption for them were much more apparent here — how couldn’t they be? — but not in sufficient supply.
Try as they might in surges, the Nuggets simply could not completely change the tone and tenor of this series, could not bump it from a pathetically one-sided affair to the evened-up throw-down everyone had foreseen.
The burning gates are nearly shut on them now, elimination staring them straight in the face, a face that will be almost impossible to save, down as they are.
If Murray was spectacular, Mitchell was stupendous. He had gone for 107 points in the first three games, and on Sunday soared for 51. The remarkable efficiency and dominance which he had shown in earlier outings continued in this one.
As the Jazz mustered the wherewithal to be near their best, a condition that should be attributed to them, but that also can be dropped at the feet of a Nuggets team that, plainly said, might not be all that good. Throughout this series, though, too often Denver’s players have shrugged off their failures as an off night, an excuse that is true, in part, but only in part.
Truth is, the Jazz are better than Denver. The Nuggets can point at explanations regarding the absence of Gary Harris and Will Barton, but the Jazz are without Bojan Bogdanovic.
Only losers do that kind of lame pointing.
The shots that had been coming and dropping so easily to and for the Jazz over the past few days continued. All told, Utah made 57.5 percent of its attempts, 48 percent from deep.
For the Jazz, there were no hints of complacency, none of the laziness that comes along with it was allowed to emerge, just as they had said, they would not let their competitive ferocity wane.
So, it didn’t.
And when that ferocity shows up on one side and unrealized desperation turns up on the other, everybody knows how that story ends.
And that’s exactly what played out in Game 4.
Denver’s desperation is compounded now, as is the Jazz’s hunger.
If the Nuggets don’t stir an appetite of their own, right now, those other gates, the ones that guard the NBA’s bubble, will close behind them soon enough.
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.