Conventional wisdom says the best way to handle an opponent in a closeout game is to get up on them early and watch them lose heart before they lose the game.
And while that’s exactly what the Jazz intended to do to the Nuggets in search of their fourth consecutive win in their first-round playoff series, they did so with anger in their own hearts over the senseless shooting of another black man, this time Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
This is a sports column, but ignoring that fact would be leaving out what the players — on both sides — were feeling. Come on, man, enough is enough. Enough is more than enough. “It’s disgusting,” Donovan Mitchell said, postgame. “I don’t know how else to describe it. When will we feel comfortable? When will we feel safe?”
The Jazz steadied themselves for a game, as did the Nuggets, going ahead and playing, dialing in on the matter at hand on the court, the greater concerns of the day still on their minds.
“There is frustration, there’s disappointment, all those emotions,” Quin Snyder said beforehand. “There’s also resolve. … I’m incredibly proud of our players.”
He was less happy with the way Game 5 turned out.
“We were in a great position, up 15, and we lost our composure,” he correctly said.
And so it was, unfortunately for the Jazz, Denver was an unwilling participant in their plan, storming back from that substantial deficit, refusing to acquiesce to elimination, instead showing all kinds of resolve, winning by the count of 117-107.
For perhaps the first time since Game 1 in this series, the Nuggets looked absolutely determined to ascend, not to descend, not to weakly turn face-first into the cold wind of an offseason filled with questions regarding how a favored team built enough regular-season wins to qualify for the third seed in the West and then kicked that qualification to the curb against the sixth seed.
At last, the Nuggets wanted nothing to do with any of that.
And they played like it, closing on a 21-9 run over the last five minutes and change. They were led by the brilliance of Jamal Murray, who scored 42 points, leaving the Jazz dusted at the end. His remarkable second half — 33 points — made a joke of the Jazz’s defense, a significant problem moving forward, with the series now narrowed to 3-2.
“They had a level we didn’t reach,” Mitchell said. “That’s on us.”
The Jazz jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first four minutes, and then … Nikola Jokic happened. The big man took eight shots in the initial quarter and made eight, going 5-for-5 from beyond the arc. Inside, outside, all around, he was stellar.
“Hopefully, he’ll slow down a little bit,” Snyder said before the start of the second quarter and … he didn’t, not really. He finished with 31.
The two-man attack offset the Jazz’s efforts. The Nuggets even threw up bits and pieces of defense, at least occasionally late in the game, which had been completely absent in the four previous meetings.
For as much as the Jazz had played with aplomb in earlier victories, typically hitting considerably better than 50 percent of their shots, moving the ball precisely and unselfishly, capitalizing on opportunistic dribble penetration, to the point where the Nuggets looked hapless to stop it, in Game 5, the Jazz stumbled as Murray blew by them. They scored just 44 points in the second half.
It was the Jazz’s defense — once so feared and fierce — that withered and waned. Not that it had been all that great in earlier outings, but here it cost them. They were the ones taking the ball out of the net and heading down the floor in an attempt to keep up.
And the Nuggets, gaining confidence with every trip, knew it.
So did the Jazz.
The grins and giggles that had been evident on their mugs and in their wins, a couple of which were nothing short of easy, disappeared on Tuesday night. All the fun the Jazz had been having transformed into what playoff basketball was meant to be — grueling and torturous, taxing and brutal, nerve-racking and soul-sapping.
What had seemed almost polite, more a cotillion and less a battle, with the Jazz playing the role of the collective debutante, making their first appearance in fashionable society, announcing themselves as a legitimate threat among the NBA’s best teams, was put on hold.
Mitchell extended his fine play, this time going for 30 points. As brilliant as he has been at times in the past, this series might be remembered as the acceleration point when the 23-year-old guard made an astounding leap. Whether it goes from All-Star to something more super, depends on the final outcome.
For that to happen, winning in the playoffs is the thing, a thing that has been postponed until Thursday, at earliest.
On this occasion, he needed to be sharper, he needed more help.
The Jazz simply couldn’t keep pace with Murray and Jokic.
It is left for them now to find a way to do exactly that.
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.