With their backs against the wall trailing the Utah Jazz 3-1 in their first-round matchup, the Denver Nuggets leaned on Jamal Murray to get them back into this series, and boy, he did not disappoint. He finished the game with 42 points, eight rebounds and eight assists en route to a 117-107 victory over the Jazz to keep the Nuggets alive.
The Jazz remain firmly in control of the series, though, as they lead Denver 3-2, and while Murray’s outburst will get the headlines, Donovan Mitchell dropped 30 points of his own in helping the Jazz lead for most of the first three quarters. He can’t score 50 every night, but he’s proven consistently able to find the matchups that he wants through switches in this series. If that keeps up, we should expect two more duels between him and Murray before this series concludes. Here are the most important takeaways from Denver’s win.
1. An all-time duel
Donovan Mitchell is averaging 37.6 points per game in this series. Murray is averaging 30.8. They’ve combined for three 50-point games and a fourth-40 pointer. Yes, the bubble has inflated offense and yes, these are two awful perimeter defensive teams right now, but this remains one of the greatest duels in playoff history. Two opposing players combining to average 68.4 points per game in a seven-game series is nearly unprecedented. For context, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley combined for 68.3 in the 1993 NBA Finals.
It’s a first-round series, and we’re in the bubble. This series probably isn’t going to be remembered as fondly as it should be, but it deserves better than “that weird bubble series with no defense.” This is legendary shot-making by Mitchell and Murray and given their ages, it likely won’t be the last time they do something like this.
2. Who wants to be here?
Weak links tend not to stand out like sore thumbs in matchups like this. Denver’s poor perimeter defenders were the culprit early on. In Game 5? Royce O’Neale’s aversion to taking the open 3-pointers Mitchell and Mike Conley created for him was jarring. He had four turnovers in the game, but none bigger than the travel that came about specifically because of his hesitance.
It’s cliche to suggest certain players want the ball in big moments more than others, but there’s truth in it. Defenses commit to superstars in big moments. If a role player is going to last in that context, he has to be able to take advantage of the opportunities provided by those stars. O’Neale didn’t, and it suffocated Utah’s offense in the fourth.
3. Michael Porter Jr. is finally surviving defensively
Note the word choice here. Porter survived Game 5. He didn’t thrive. There were still a few utterly confounding mistakes, but Denver outscored Utah by 18 points during Porter’s minutes, and they allowed only 107 points in total in the game. They’re happy with both of those outcomes, especially given his struggles earlier in the series.
There’s a degree of common sense to this. Porter is a rookie, and rookies are rarely good on defense. It takes playing time for most players to understand the intricacies of doing so at the NBA level. Porter hardly played during the regular season because Mike Malone was afraid of his defensive deficiencies, but that in turn made it harder for Porter to improve. Now that he’s playing quite a bit, especially against the same opponent, he’s learning on the fly. He won’t ever be good in this series, but he doesn’t have to be. He just has to be competent enough to justify keeping his offense on the floor.