In Game 6 on Sunday night, coming off an extended hiatus, knowing they’d blown a chance to close the series out in the previous meeting, the Utah Jazz came out with serious intensity, slicing and dicing the Denver defense inside their patented blender, ratcheting up the defensive intensity.
Which lasted for about the first half of the first 12 minutes.
Over the next 36, the Jazz curiously abandoned what had worked early, going with — and largely failing with — isolation-heavy sets on offense, which, combined with yet another star-gazing defensive “effort” directed at Jamal Murray, the Nuggets cruised to a 119-107 victory.
And with their second straight loss, the Jazz have seen their 3-1 series lead disappear. A wholly avoidable winner-take-all Game 7 now lies ahead.
“We’re not down. We’re just pissed off because that was a winnable game,” Donovan Mitchell said in a fiery postgame media session. “No one’s down at all. We’ve got one more game. If we’re down and out now, then we’ve already lost Game 7. I don’t think anybody’s down. I think ‘pissed’ would be the right word because there were things we could do to win this game.”
Like, say, not abandoning the motion-and-passing-heavy offense that was working early. Alas, after scoring 36 points in the game’s first 12 minutes, Utah managed only 43 points combined over the next 24.
Mitchell did his part once again, racking up 44 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals for Utah in another spectacular individual effort. But he was practically a one-man show in the final quarter, as the Jazz only managed to hang around the periphery of contention down the stretch.
Mike Conley was the only other Jazz player to do much on offense, finishing with 21 points and six assists.
And yet, it’s hard to say which side of the ball Utah was worse on.
The Jazz’s defense was once again completely ineffectual against Murray, as he racked up 25 points in the first half, cooled off momentarily in the third quarter, but lit it up down the stretch once more, finishing with 50 for the game — his second time cracking the half-century mark in this series.
And he barely seemed to break a sweat doing it — hitting 17 of 24 shots overall, and going 9 for 12 from beyond the arc.
“We’re trying to make him hit contested shots — and he’s doing that,” said coach Quin Snyder. “There were times in the game where we did try to trap him or hit him, and get the ball out of his hands, but he’s playing terrific basketball. We’ve got to do a better job on him.”
Not that they did much more against the rest of the Nuggets, who, as a team, connected on 54.9% of their shots and went 18 of 36 from deep.
Nikola Jokic chipped in 22 points and nine assists. Even Jerami Grant, a bouncy, athletic, floor-running big man, torched them with his shooting touch, drilling 4 of 7 from 3-point range in totaling 18 points.
“Jamal had his 50, but he made passes and the [other] guys got just shots,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to be aggressive on the defensive end. They were a little too comfortable.”
Even the things the Jazz did well, like forcing 16 Denver turnovers, they weren’t really able to capitalize on, as they managed only 15 points off those miscues. On the rare occasions that they did force Murray into a miss, Denver seemingly turned it into an offensive rebound and a second-chance opportunity.
Meanwhile, a few areas the Jazz had dominated throughout the series didn’t go Utah’s way this time. The Nuggets limited Utah to just 28 points in the paint. They also outscored the Jazz in the third quarter. As a result, Denver took a lead into the fourth quarter for the first time this series.
And just like that, a Jazz team that looked to be rolling in three consecutive victories, all but assured of advancing to the Western Conference semifinals, is now fighting for its playoff life.
Still, they have vowed not to panic.
“Yeah, we had two opportunities to close it out, and we lost two games. But it’s a new game. Every day is a new opportunity to accomplish something,” said center Rudy Gobert. “We were kind of the underdog from the start, so if you would have told us [at the outset] that we were going to have an opportunity to go to a Game 7, we’d take it.”
Mitchell was slightly less philosophical, though no less resolved.
Asked if he could at least appreciate how, from a fan’s point of view, the drama of a Game 7 would be appealing, the league’s playoff scoring leader wanted no part of that mentality.
He just wants to win.
“To be honest with you, if it wasn’t for a few things, we could have had it [closed out] in the last game. Obviously, as a fan, you want a Game 7. We didn’t want that. And that’s why we’re pretty upset,” Mitchell said. “Because at the end of the day, we had things in our control and we let it slip. So now it’s on us to go back out there and do our thing. We felt like we could have had this series. But they fought, they didn’t to go home. And now we’ve got to play like we don’t want to go home.”