It’s complicated. If we’re going to get all technical and tell the whole truth, there’s more to the Jazz-Nuggets playoff series than just two opposing brilliant young stars, each of them just 23 years old, who are playing at a ridiculous level.
But the latter is more of a gas to highlight than trudging through, breaking down transition defense or the lack thereof and studying hedges on the pick and roll, examining points in the paint and asking why more pedestrian players are hesitating on shots, worrying about getting fouled.
This series, sitting at 3-2, advantage Jazz, heading into Game 6 on Thursday, is marked by one major conjoined event: The emergence of Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray.
Each is transcending — or trying to, anyway — from a more common NBA kind of second-tier-outstanding status to a rarified elite one, from All-Star to something bigger and better, from a group of, say, 25 to a group of, maybe, 10.
And it’s tough getting there, breaking into a club with LeBron, Kawhi, Giannis, James, Steph, Damian, and Kevin.
But that’s what’s happening here, at least in the initial stages — Murray and Mitchell knocking at the door, Murray and MItchell playing beyond their averages, Murray and MItchell leading the playoffs in scoring, with Mitchell first and Murray second.
You’ve seen it. We all have.
In five games, Mitchell is averaging nearly 38 points, and Murray getting a fraction shy of 31. They’re picking up assists, too.
But that’s not the full story.
The entirety of it is the way these guys are scoring, the way they are leading their teams, the way they are lifting them, the way they, over extended key stretches, cannot be stopped, no matter what the opposing defense does.
It’s almost as though there is no defense.
Ask the Jazz about that through the second half of Game 5, when they had the Nuggets in a camel clutch, all positioned for elimination, up 15 oints with a couple of fistfuls of minutes left to play, and then …
Murray hits 14 of 18 shots, scoring 33 second-half points, and 42 overall, including the kinds of contorted attempts James Naismith — like Murray, also a Canadian — never could have beamed up on the big screen in his innovative brain.
Everybody saw the back-spinning move around Rudy Gobert at the basket, everybody saw the rocket launches, everybody saw the sweet teardrop jumpers, all as Jazz defenders — Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles, Mitchell, among others — were flailing around, looking as though they were playing against a dude from a different celestial orb.
He was un-guardable.
There was nothing the Jazz could do, short of punching him in the kidneys and hoping enough damage was inflicted. More on that in a minute.
Murray has done similar things in other games, too, including a 50-point performance in the Jazz’s tight Game 4 win, a victory that required Mitchell’s going for 51, which was a near-perfect number, a near-perfect one-point representation of the two stars engaging in fierce battle.
He who outdoes the other wins.
Much has been made of Mitchell’s two 50-plus-point showings, only the fourth player in history — along with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson — to achieve that in a single playoff series. Also, his 57 points earlier had only been exceeded in a playoff game by Jordan and Elgin Baylor.
In Mitchell’s highest moments, he was circumventing Nuggets defenders as though they were wearing moon boots, while he was flying on to Mars.
There was nothing they could do, at least nothing legal.
Which raises a question, then.
What should Quin Snyder and Michael Malone do against these two? What would you do? Would you start hitting them? Bruising them? Bodying them? Murray already has a banged-up knee. Would you give your defenders the approval for a few well-placed forearm shivers? Maybe an extended foot undercutting an otherwise unstoppable drive? What would the late-great Jerry Sloan have ordered up? Anybody on the Jazz have the elbows of Karl Malone or on the Nuggets have the extended clothesline of Dikembe Mutombo?
Not advocating hoop violence here, just wondering what’s going to change anything.
Perhaps nothing should. Let the biggest dogs run to glory.
As it is, whichever shooting star burns brighter, flies higher, straighter, longer in Game 6 will lead his team to victory, Mitchell and the Jazz moving on to the semis, Murray and the Nuggets to elimination, or Murray and the Nuggets on to play a Game 7.
Yeah, maybe that’s the way it should be.
Even a beautiful team sport like basketball is a star’s game in the NBA.
And whoever achieves passage to the next round raises his profile, ratchets up his standing, edging closer to the kind of rare ascent that impressive, memorable wins in the playoffs bring to only a handful of stars, the ones who are super.
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.