With just over a minute remaining in Sunday night’s game, and the Utah Jazz leading the Nuggets by a single point, Donovan Mitchell drove the lane, gained a step, elevated for a finger-roll layup … and had it swatted out of the air and out of bounds by Denver’s Paul Millsap.
As Mitchell sat on the court for a moment, Millsap stared him down, as if galled by the guard’s temerity to challenge him. And so it was that, on the ensuing inbound, Mitchell took the ball several feet beyond the arc and, finding Millsap guarding him, immediately challenged him again.
This time, Mitchell sized him up, crossed him over, pulled up behind the line, launched a 3-pointer over his outstretched arm, and, as the ball settled softly through the net, turned around yelled to his onrushing teammates, “I want this [expletive]!”
These days, Mitchell pretty much gets whatever he wants. The third-year guard racked up 18 of his 51 points in the fourth quarter Sunday, as the Jazz pulled off a pivotal, scratch-and-claw 129-127 victory that gave them a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets.
Shockingly, a team thought to be first-round cannon fodder following a season-ending injury to second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic is now one win away from the Western Conference semifinals.
“That particular game, in itself, was probably the most important game of the series for us. They came out and fought. I got to give them credit, their coaching staff — they made a lot of really good adjustments. I think the way we responded shows how much we want it,” Mitchell said afterward. “We knew they were going to come out and punch first, and [we] tried to stay in it. You know it’s not gonna be a 30-point blowout; they have pride, too. And I think for us, just continuing to fight, continuing to fight, and that shot was just just a symbol of what not myself, but what we as a team wanted. We worked hard to get to this point. But the job’s not finished.”
Indeed, after the Jazz registered consecutive 19- and 37-point blowouts in Games 2 and 3, the Nuggets made wholesale changes for Game 4, changing their starting lineup, their approach on the court, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the issues that plagued them in those back-to-back routs …
None of it mattered in the end.
Mitchell hit 15 of 27 shots from the field and 17 of 18 free throws to become just the third player in NBA history to have multiple 50-point games in a single playoff series, joining Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. He also added seven assists.
“He was terrific. He’s a terrific player,” coach Quin Snyder summed it up succinctly. “The way that he answered everything that was going on, even early, and was able to pick his spots … he hit tough shots. He’s playing with a level of confidence right now that is very high.”
It was understood that, down 2-1, Denver would come out strong and take it to the Jazz. And they did. With Jerami Grant and Monte Morris inserted into the starting five in place of light-defending Michael Porter Jr. and brick-shooting Torrey Craig, the Nuggets racked up 14 points in the paint in the first quarter, and went to work on the offensive boards.
Still, no matter what Denver rolled out, the Jazz hung in there — that is, if posting a 64-point first half and shooting better than 58% from the field could be construed as “hanging in there.”
Crucially, though, as the game went along, Utah continued to get better. While those first 24 minutes were a brilliant display of isolation efficiency from Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson, the third quarter was perhaps even prettier, with Mitchell and Mike Conley operating the blender at peak efficiency, and some increased defensive intensity forcing a few more Denver misses and turnovers.
And after posting only six assists in the entire first half, the Jazz racked up that many alone in the third quarter. Meanwhile, after another slow start from the 3-point line, they wound up hitting 14 of 29 shots from beyond the arc (48.3%).
All of which ultimately enabled withstanding a Jamal Murray onslaught and an offensive-rebounding barrage from the Nuggets in a nail-biter of a fourth quarter.
Mitchell did get some help along the way, of course. Conley had another efficient showing with 26 points on 8-for-13 shooting, while Clarkson contributed as well by hitting 9 of 13 and scoring 24.
Still, for the second time this series, the game came down to Mitchell and Murray trading buckets down the stretch, as they replicated their Game 1 scoring battle. Mitchell again got the upper hand on the stat sheet, as Murray racked up a career-high 50; but more importantly, this time the Louisville product also earned the crucial victory.
Now they just need one more.
“We’re not going to go to sleep thinking this is over at all,” Conley said. “Coach is going to keep us locked in, our players are keeping everybody accountable and we’re going to go out there and be ready to go in a couple of days.”
Jazz lead best-of-seven series 3-1
Game 1 • Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Game 2 • Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Game 3 • Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Game 4 • Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Game 5 • Tuesday, time and TV TBD
Game 6 • Thursday, time TBD, ESPN*
Game 7 • Aug. 29, time TBD, TNT*