The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell scores 51 to outshine Jamal Murray’s 50 as Jazz win Game 4 shootout

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) passes the as Denver Nuggets' Jerami Grant (9), Paul Millsap (4) and Nikola Jokic, right, defend during the first half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 129-127 win over the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Donovan Mitchell goes off again

Donovan Mitchell has just been incredible during this playoff series, with yet another terrific game in Game 4. In the end, he had 51 points (15-27 FG, 4-7 3P, 17-18 FT), four rebounds, seven assists and four turnovers in 38 minutes.

It’s the second time he’s scored 50 in the series, after scoring 57 in Game 1. The list of people to score 50 twice in the same series: Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and now Mitchell. Oh, so that’s pretty good company.

I also enjoyed this list of games in which players from opposing teams scored 50:

All but tonight’s contest were regular season matchups. It hasn’t been done in 20 years, and it’s just never been done in the playoffs ever. It’s an astonishing accomplishment from both Mitchell and Jamal Murray.

Mitchell has developed since the quarantine, there’s very little doubt about it now. After the game, Mitchell explained it like this:

“I love hearing negative things about me and as you know, the knock on me has been inefficient, not a team player, whatever it is. I pride myself on being a team player. I pride myself on being a playmaker. Obviously, 50 (points) is what it is, but I’m more happy that I got seven assists.” Mitchell said. “There’s no secret that last year’s playoffs wasn’t my best and I took that personally, and at the end of the day I’m going to trust my work and keep moving forward.”

I’ve focused on Mitchell’s playmaking in previous games in this series, though I do not believe him when he says that he was more proud of his seven assists than the 51 points tonight. Seven assists doesn’t get you on any all-time leaderboards. 51 points does. 51 points on 27 shots? Even better.

Three things got us here. First, Mitchell seems to have taken a leap in his shooting ability from everywhere. He’s now shooting 51% from deep and 95% from the free-throw line during the series. He was previously a somewhat iffy pull-up shooter, but if he can be a 40% pull-up shooter — he’s at 50% for the series — it unlocks everything else in his game as defenses will have to crowd him near the arc.

Second, Mitchell has gotten so much better at drawing contact and getting to the line. Again, he shot 18 free throws tonight. Deron Williams did that in a Jazz uniform once. Before that, the last Jazzman to do that was Karl Malone. But he’s figured out the secret: how to use his body and when, where to stick his arms in dangerous locations, and more. It’s immensely promising.

Here, he is one on one with Michael Porter Jr, and as soon as he feels that off hand used to check him, he drags his arm up into it. Easy call.

Third, he’s getting all the way to the rim, not settling. I think previous iterations of Mitchell either picks this ball up one step earlier, or takes one fewer step before taking the layup. But in the NBA, you’re allowed two steps after the gather, so you might as well use all of them to get to the tin. He does, and it’s an easy layup.

I am curious how he’ll play against better defenses. Remember, the Nuggets had the bubble’s worst defense going into the playoffs, and the Jazz have made it even worse. Of course, Mitchell deserves most of the credit for that. But if the Jazz play the Clippers in the next round, that will be a more difficult test. (If they play the Mavericks, well, I don’t think it will be more difficult, quite frankly. They’re pretty soft defensively too.)

Nevertheless, what we’ve seen is immensely promising. Give that man a max extension, pronto.

2. Jazz defense lacking

It’s good that Mitchell had that game, too, because the Jazz needed every bit of it. The Jazz allowed the Nuggets to score 136 points per 100 possessions in Game 4. It is the first time a team has scored 136 points per 100 possessions and lost in the playoffs, according to Stathead.

The Jazz did do a very good job of not fouling Denver. But they never forced turnovers, didn’t get a lot of misses, and when they did, did a terrible job of securing the offensive rebound. In the end, the Nuggets had 17 offensive rebounds, which meant 27 second-chance points. That’s way too many.

It just wasn’t a good enough consistent team effort. On this one, for example, Royce O’Neale starts to box out Millsap, but in the end, he doesn’t move Millsap back enough. Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert doesn’t get himself over in position to contest for the board either.

Here, O’Neale just loses Murray on the offensive rebound.

I don’t mean to pick on O’Neale: he was tremendous at rebounding in the first three games of the series. He didn’t do anything worse than anyone else on Sunday, but it wasn’t at the level of his efforts earlier in the series. High expectations are the curse of success.

Finally, the Jazz again allowed too much separation to Jamal Murray. It was a familiar situation, with Royce O’Neale guarding him primarily, with Joe Ingles as the secondary defender when O’Neale was in foul trouble. But with that two-man game with Jokic, Murray got open looks at the basket time and time again.

In the end, the Jazz made one final adjustment: the two Jazz wings guarded Murray and Jokic, and then just switched on every screen Jokic sent. When Murray did eventually find his way to the hoop, Gobert could be waiting down there to help. Gobert jumped vertically to stop Murray (at first, anyway, though it seems the referees missed a crucial late swipe on Murray’s arm) that got the Jazz the final stop they needed to win the game.

They’ll need to be at a higher defensive level in general to have a chance in the next series, should they close this one out.

3. Rudy Gobert’s rim finishing

I used to host a podcast with former SLCDunk writer Clark Schmutz, and I thought he had a great point about Gobert’s rim finishing.

Like, here’s Gobert catching and adjusting while he goes to the rim, finishing to the right of the outstretched defender.

That’s an athletic mid-air adjustment to make for a big man! Impressive stuff.

But I’m also impressed with Gobert’s strength in finishing on some of these dunks, which have legitimately surprised me at times. This ball is thrown well above Gobert, but he catches it high, pivots, and absolutely throws it down through contact from Jokic.

Mitchell has proven he’s taken a leap in this playoff series, and deserves the lion share of the credit. But Gobert’s been really excellent too, and showing he can do stuff like this is one big part of why the “you can’t play him in the playoffs” label has shed quickly.

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