SALT LAKE CITY — The overtime clock read, 1:53. Donovan Mitchell walked onto the court after the Utah Jazz took a timeout and wiped the sweat off his face with a towel. As he surveyed the court, determination on his face, he nodded his head repeatedly.
Perhaps it was internal dialogue he was agreeing with, an attempt to hype himself up after the game had gotten away from him. Maybe it was acknowledgement of the moment. This is it, less than two minutes to go, everything needs to be perfect.
But, the Jazz weren’t perfect in the final stretch on Monday, and the Denver Nuggets took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Coincidentally, the last time there was 1:53 on the clock — in the fourth quarter — the most regrettable sequence of the game for Mitchell unfolded.
“It’s all about being a little tougher mentally. We know that all those little details, the turnovers, the fouls, are going to matter especially at the end of close games.” — Jazz center Rudy Gobert
After an excellent defensive possession from Rudy Gobert, who blocked Nikola Jokic’s shot and secured the ball, Jokic poked the ball out of bounds. The Jazz had a four-point lead. Mitchell then received the inbounds pass and took his time bringing the ball up, thinking he had a full eight seconds before he needed to get past half court.
But, when Gobert grabbed the ball out of the air after blocking Jokic’s shot, possession changed hands and two seconds ticked by before the ball went out of bounds.
Mitchell only had six seconds to get to half court, and by the time he realized it, it was too late. After committing the eight-second violation, Jamal Murray answered by crossing up Royce O’Neale and hitting a 3-pointer to cut the Jazz’s lead to just one point.
Mitchell admitted he wasn’t aware of the clock situation and rather than having an opportunity to go up by seven points, the mistake allowed the Nuggets to come right back.
“That’s my fault as a leader and as the point guard at that time, that’s terrible,” Mitchell said. “That eight-second violation, and then they come down and hit a three, that really changed the entire game.”
By the time the fourth quarter ended, Mitchell had already scored a career-high 51 points — 49 coming after the first quarter — supplanting Karl Malone’s franchise record (50) for most points scored in a playoff game.
After commanding the game for so long, after being so close to winning, despite not having Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley, things started to fall apart in overtime. On four consecutive possessions the Jazz turned the ball over. First Mitchell, then Gobert, then Joe Ingles, and Mitchell again.
Meanwhile Murray, Jokic, and Monte Morris were draining shots on the other end, taking all of the air out of the Jazz’s sails.
“It’s all about being a little tougher mentally,” Gobert said. “We know that all those little details, the turnovers, the fouls, are going to matter especially at the end of close games.”
(3) Denver Nuggets
vs. (6) Utah Jazz
Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Nuggets 119, Jazz 107
Nuggets 80, Jazz 78, Nuggets win series 4-3
Trailing by nine points, Mitchell walked onto the court, nodding. Maybe he knew the game was already gone. He would go on to score six more points, finishing with 57, the third-best scoring output in NBA playoff history behind only Michael Jordan (63) and Elgin Baylor (61).
Jordan Clarkson chipped in two points in that last stretch, but Jokic and Murray hit every shot they attempted over the final 1:53 and Jerami Grant sealed the deal, going 4-of-4 from the charity stripe.
Leading the way for the Nuggets was Murray with 36 points. In his on-court interview on ESPN after the game, Murray, out of breath, and unprompted exclaimed about Mitchell’s performance.
“He was killing us,” Murray said. “You’ve got to give him credit, man. No Bogey, no Conley, and they kept fighting.”
Mitchell’s 57 points were indeed impressive, but he wasn’t the one giving the walk-off interview. In order to earn that honor, you have to be precise and composed in the most crucial moments of the game.
Whether it was pressure, fatigue, the fact that the Jazz are missing two of their starters, or some other factor, they came up short in overtime.
“This is going to be a hard-fought series,” Denver coach Mike Malone said before the game started. “Every time we play them it seems like it goes down to the wire. They’re a very good team and we expect this to be a dog fight.”
In the end, this will all likely come down to who can handle the heavy minutes and play with poise when the game is on the line. There aren’t any drills the Jazz can run to stave off fatigue, there’s nothing more they can do to mentally prepare for the battle ahead. All of that needed to be done before Monday.
“There’s not much you can do now,” Mitchell said. “You’re either ready or you’re not.”