Some of the names may have changed, but the story remained the same: In need of some crucial buckets in a playoff game, the Utah Jazz could not manage enough of them.
Though the Jazz improved enough late to rally back from a 19-point deficit and their lowest-scoring first half of the series, they ultimately could not put the ball in the basket enough when it counted, and dropped an 80-78 decision to the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 on Tuesday night in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
And so it was that Utah’s third loss in a row proved the devastating completion of an epic collapse, one which saw them waste a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series and be eliminated from the postseason in the first round for a second consecutive year.
Afterward, all they could do was lament the opportunities they let slip through their fingers.
“We shouldn’t even have been in this situation. There are so many things that we can go to — my eight-second violation in Game 1, blowing a 15-point lead in Game 5, not matching their level in Game 6,” said a visibly distraught Donovan Mitchell. “There are so many things we could have did, and we didn’t. That’s where the hurt really comes. We eased off the gas in Game 5. We’ve never really been in this situation. That’s on us. We shouldn’t have been in Game 7. We should have put this away.
“We’ll fix it,” he added.
Nikola Jokic hit a go-ahead fadeaway hook shot over Rudy Gobert with 27.8 seconds to play in what would prove the game’s final points. On the next possession, Mitchell had the ball poked away from behind, Denver’s Torrey Craig missed what would have been the clinching layup, and Mike Conley’s last-ditch 3-point try at the buzzer went halfway down … and then rimmed out.
In a series marked by record-setting scoring histrionics, by the mano-a-mano basket-getting brilliance of Mitchell and Jamal Murray, naturally, Tuesday night’s Game 7 came down to an old-school, hard-fought, throwback slugfest.
The Jazz came into the game leading all playoff teams in offensive rating, notching almost 126 points per 100 possessions.
None of which meant anything Tuesday.
NUGGETS 80, JAZZ 78
• Mike Conley’s frantic, last-ditch 3-point attempt at the buzzer goes in and out, as Utah is eliminated by Denver.
• After scoring just 36 points themselves in the first half, the Jazz hold the Nuggets to just 30 points after halftime.
• After coming in as the playoff scoring leader, Donovan Mitchell struggles to 22 points on 9-for-22 shooting.
Utah managed just 16 points in the first quarter (its lowest-scoring period of the series) and just 36 points in the first half (its lowest-scoring half of the series).
And while they were marginally better on offense and astronomically better on defense after the break, to the point that they came back and took the lead on several occasions, they ultimately couldn’t get the baskets they needed most.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder acknowledged he was devastated by the defeat, calling it “one the toughest losses I’ve ever been a part of.” But he was also pleased with the fight his players showed in not giving up.
“I’m just unbelievably proud of the way that we competed. We were dead in the water in the first half, and our group just kept grinding, kept competing, and that’s as significant to me as anything that happened in the game,” he said.
Indeed, the Jazz got back to playing physical, aggressive defense after the break to facilitate an incredible comeback. Rudy Gobert was blocking shots, Murray was finally denied the wide-open looks that had come to define Denver’s previous games, and the Nuggets were limited to just 30 points after the break.
Which was still not quite enough to make up for Utah’s own offensive deficiencies.
The Jazz shot just 38% for the game and converted only 8 of 34 attempts from behind the 3-point line — a 23.5% clip reminiscent of recent playoff ousters against the Houston Rockets.
Mitchell led the way with 22 points, but shot just 9 for 22 — including 2 for 8 from deep — and committed nine turnovers. Still, he racked up 15 of those points after the break to get the Jazz back in it.
Gobert, who struggled through a low-energy, foul-plagued first half in which he grabbed only a single rebound and was pretty thoroughly outplayed by Jokic, also came alive after the break. He wound up with 19 points, 18 boards, and a pair of crucial blocks down the stretch.
Though he was disappointed with the loss, he still came away encouraged by the way the Jazz fought for each other — especially considering all the drama they had to deal with during the hiatus after he and Mitchell became the NBA’s first two players to test positive for COVID-19.
“I’m proud of the way we handled everything that happened in our team. ... I’m talking about especially Donovan and myself,” Gobert said. “To be able to come back and play the way we were able to play, even though we came short, I think it’s very encouraging for the future.”
Jordan Clarkson, with 10 points, was the only other Jazz player in double-digit scoring.
Conley, meanwhile, endured a rough eight-point, seven-assist night that saw him shoot 2 for 13 overall and 1 of 6 from deep. None hurt nearly as much as that last one, though, on that chaotic final possession.
“I was just trying to get a shot up and felt like I got a very good look for the moment,” he said. “I swore it was going in. And when it didn’t, that’s what made it even more devastating. When it left my hand, I was sure it was going in.”
But, as has been the case on myriad occasions before for this team, it didn’t.
After the game, Snyder wasn’t keen to look too far ahead, to give any big-picture assessments of what’s to come. This loss was too recent, too raw.
Still, given all that came before in a crazily turbulent and most enigmatic season, he nevertheless managed to find some perspective in it all.
“This game tonight, that’s one of the toughest losses I’ve been through,” he said. “Since Oklahoma City, to have this group come back here in Orlando, and just to see the competitiveness and unselfishness. ... I wish we would have had a chance to keep playing. That hurts the most right now.”
A frantic final sequence sees Donovan Mitchell get the ball poked away, Denver’s Torrey Craig inexplicably race in for a layup and miss, and Mike Conley get an open 3 at the horn, which rims out.
23.5 • Utah has struggled before to hit open 3s in key playoff games, and Game 7 this year was no different, as they converted just 8 of 34 beyond the arc — 23.5%.
After losing three straight games to waste a 3-1 series lead, the Jazz have been eliminated from the 2020 NBA playoffs.