KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Mike Conley arrived to practice early on Monday and as he walked into the gym, there was Donovan Mitchell, walking in at the same time.
For the Jazz’s most veteran player the extra dedication and the successful practice that followed his and Mitchell’s early arrival was a signal that the Utah Jazz are in the right headspace and prepared for a Game 7 battle with the Denver Nuggets.
“We’re not planning on going home, that’s not what we came here to do,” Conley said after practice. “We came here for a reason. We didn’t come here to be here for a month and a half, away from our families, just to go home. If we’re going to be here, we want to ride this thing all the way out.”
It’s possible that the Jazz became relaxed over the past two games, that their focus on the details that gave them a 3-1 lead in the series wasn’t as trained as it needed to be. Rather than heading into the games with a proactive approach, the players forced things and played from a reactive position. After winning three straight, it’s easy to expect to win at least one of the next three.
“It’s win, or go home. It’s as simple as it gets. There’s no single better game to be a part of in sports. ... That’s what you come out here to do is to have moments like this, to have opportunities to play in big moments.” — Jazz guard Mike Conley
Meanwhile the Nuggets weren’t worried about the next three games. They knew that they just needed to win one game to gain some momentum, and they did. Then they won another, and now they are headed into Game 7 with the confidence that they just need to win one more.
“We didn’t approach it like we had to win all three games. It was one game at a time,” Denver coach Mike Malone said on Monday. “Now we’re here. We’ve gotten ourselves to this point. We’ve been here before. Our guys understand that every possession matters and I think we’ll have a comfort level because we’ve been here before, last season, and in Game 5 and 6.”
In order to break the Nuggets away from that comfort zone, the Jazz need to return to the spaced, moving and defensive-first style of play that won them three of the games during this series and that was on display during the first quarter of Game 6.
Conley pointed to the feeling that the team has when it’s playing free and creating for each other and Snyder noted that those possessions come when the players are making quick decisions and playing on instinct without hesitation.
“I think the more and more we continue to play within the flow of the game and let everybody move the ball and touch it and get moving around defensively, I think that gets us going on both ends of the floor,” Conley said.
The Nuggets got a boost defensively from Gary Harris in Game 6, who returned to action for the first time since the league shut down on March 11. The Nuggets know that the Jazz are going to try to break down the defense with space and by utilizing their multiple ball handlers. In general, they know that Game 7 is going to be a challenge, after all, coming back from a 3-1 deficit is not a common occurrence in the NBA.
“We welcome the challenge,” Malone said. “Only 11 teams have done this in NBA history, and why shouldn’t we be the 12th? That’s our attitude.”
Leading the charge for the Nuggets is Jamal Murray, who has scored 142 points over the last three games. He’s playing at an insanely high level, showing up in the big moments with the game on the line and it doing it at a historically efficient clip. The Jazz continue to struggle to find ways to slow him down, but they know it can be done and they aren’t heading into Game 7 with any sense of defeat.
Instead, the Jazz believe that they are more ready than ever to fix their most recent mistakes and show the world what they’re capable of.
“Guys are anxious and eager to get to our next game and rewrite what we’ve done,” Conley said. “They’ve really outworked us the last two games and played with more urgency. Now we’re the team that’s got to show how urgent we are.”
The Jazz didn’t want for the series to go this far. They wanted to finish things off last week. But a Game 7 in the playoffs can often test players in ways that they haven’t been tested before and whether or not they wanted to end up here, they realize that this is the moment in which they have to shine.
“It’s win, or go home. It’s as simple as it gets,” Conley said. “There’s no single better game to be a part of in sports. ... That’s what you come out here to do is to have moments like this, to have opportunities to play in big moments.”