The Utah Jazz may yet eliminate the Denver Nuggets and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
But it’ll take at least one more game to do it.
Jamal Murray went off once again, Donovan Mitchell could not respond in kind this time, and the Nuggets capitalized on some ratcheted-up defense, beating the Jazz 117-107 on Tuesday night in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., as Utah’s series lead was cut to 3-2.
“”They were at a level that we just didn’t reach. They played desperate. And I’ve got to give them credit, ‘cause some teams roll over. They didn’t. They kept fighting,” Mitchell said. “They’re competitors, they’re fighters over there, they’re guys who don’t want to go home. And we didn’t play like we wanted to move on.”
Murray, meanwhile, went off late, draining four straight shots at one point deep in the fourth quarter to turn a 101-all tie into a 110-101 lead with 1:20 to play.
He finished with 42 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
The Jazz, on the other hand, had several crucial miscues — plus some simple bad luck — with the game in the balance: Royce O’Neale inexplicably forgetting to guard Murray on an inbound, then following up immediately with an illegal screen; Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Rudy Gobert all missing free throws; Gobert blocking a dunk attempt by Jerami Grant, only to see the loose ball go right to Murray, who dribbled out, checked the shot clock running down on the opposite end of the court, turned around, and calmly sank a backbreaking jumper.
NUGGETS 117, JAZZ 107
• Jamal Murray racks up 42 points and eight assists, making one big play after another down the stretch to lead Denver.
• Utah goes up by 15 in the third quarter, then immediately surrenders a 14-3 run to let the Nuggets back into it.
• The Jazz’s offense struggles as the game goes on, decreasing from 63 in the first half to 44 in the second.
Of course, the Jazz were in some trouble well before that, having racked up a 15-point lead in the third quarter, seemingly letting off the gas, then watching the Nuggets immediately respond with a 14-3 run to make it a game again.
“We were in a great position up 15, I think, and we lost our composure a little bit,” said coach Quin Snyder. “And they made some plays to get back in the game, and then we were in for a dogfight. "
While the first half saw the Jazz’s juggernaut offense get rolling again — 63 points on 55.8% shooting overall, plus an 11-for-22 effort from beyond the arc — it was a different story after the break.
Though Mitchell would later say the Nuggets didn’t do anything differently, they just did it better, Snyder rattled off a list of ways Denver made the Jazz’s lives difficult, plus a few ways Utah contributed to that endeavor themselves.
“They were aggressive, they were hedging on pick-and-roll, Jokic got up and was in kind of a soft blitz, there was a number of things they did try to contain our ball-handlers,” Snyder said. “We still got into the paint, [but] we didn’t finish some. I thought we got concerned about getting fouled. We passed up a few shots that we’ve been taking, and have been [taking] with confidence. But as much as anything, we stopped being able to get out and run, as well. We just have to execute better, really, on both ends of the floor.”
In the end, the Jazz struggled against Denver’s aggressive, high pick-ups after the break to the tune of totaling only 44 points in the final 24 minutes.
With the game tied at 101, Denver’s Jamal Murray hits four consecutive shots in scoring nine straight points.
21 • With Denver mounting a big comeback, the Jazz’s previously explosive offense goes inexplicably quiet, totaling just 21 fourth-quarter points.
Utah’s second chance at closing out the series comes Thursday, with tipoff set for 2 p.m. MT.
Still, the Jazz’s demise was of the thousand-tiny-pinpricks variety, as opposed to being bludgeoned to death by a single, obvious error.
The stat sheet reveals no flashing alarms, no blaring klaxons — Utah still shot 50% from the field, still hit 47.1% from deep (though only six of their 3-pointers came after halftime), still scored 46 points in the paint, still limited the Nuggets to only five offensive rebounds.
No, it was much more subtle, nuanced problems that plagued the Jazz — like Joe Ingles letting Murray beat him on the non-help side, and then clanking a 3-pointer himself on the other end. Like O’Neale hesitating to fire up a wide-open 3-pointer, and shuffling his feet for a traveling call. Like O’Neale picking up his fourth and fifth fouls in quick succession in the fourth quarter, forcing Snyder to move Mitchell onto Murray in the hopes of containing him, only to prove less effective at it while also seeing his offense suffer as a result.
Mitchell did finish with 30 points and five assists, but seemed to lack the closing burst he’s displayed myriad other times this series.
Still, the third-year guard was not concerned about he and his teammates coming up short in the clutch Tuesday. They simply need to get back to the plan, and recognize that, as the Nuggets are still facing elimination, they’re going to bring it all again Thursday afternoon for Game 6.
“They raised their level, we just didn’t match it. That’s really it. Nothing special,” Mitchell said. “… I think we just kind of got out of our character, and we’ve just gotta come back ready to go.”
Jazz lead best-of-seven series 3-2
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 • Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Game 6 • Thursday, 2 p.m. MT, ESPN
Game 7 • Saturday, time and TV, TBD*
* If necessary