KISSIMMEE, Fla. — When the final buzzer sounded, as Mike Conley’s left-wing 3-point attempt sailed through the air, a shot that would have given the Utah Jazz a Game 7 win, Donovan Mitchell stood on the right side of the arc with his hands in the air. When Conley’s shot rimmed out, Mitchell collapsed.
“We were this close,” Mitchell said after the game, with tears in his eyes. “We were down and came back and fought and fought and clawed, and to be that close, that hurts. I didn’t know what else to do. I was exhausted. I just kind of laid there. It sucks.”
(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
Denver’s Jamal Murray rushed to Mitchell’s side, urged him to stand up and the two embraced. Friends off the court, the pair dazzled throughout the series but in the end it was Murray and the Nuggets who prevailed.
With a final score of 80-78, the Denver Nuggets became just the 12th team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win a playoff series. They did so by staving off a second-half surge from the Jazz with efforts from Mitchell and Rudy Gobert that were worthy of a Game 7, but to do so in the second half wasn’t enough.
Through the first 24 minutes, the Jazz didn’t look like a team that was ready for Game 7. They didn’t look ready for the Nuggets. And, they certainly didn’t look ready for the Western Conference semifinals.
In the final sequence of Tuesday’s game, Mitchell turned the ball over with 8.4 seconds left on the clock. A missed layup on the other end gave the Jazz one last chance, but with no timeouts left the only choice the Jazz had was Conley’s shot, which danced around the rim, teasing victory.
“I felt really good about it,” Conley said of the look he got at the end of the game. “I thought it was going in.”
The Jazz were left without a timeout because they were forced to take one with 17.4 seconds left when Mitchell and Royce O’Neale got trapped in the right corner near half court. Before that though, as the Jazz were slogging through the first half, Jazz coach Quin Snyder called two timeouts in quick succession, disappointed with the lack of defensive attention from his team.
When trying to look for a reason the Jazz lost on Tuesday, you could look to Conley’s missed shot, Mitchell’s turnover, the lack of timeouts, or even the lack of energy through the entirety of the first half.
Through the first 24 minutes, the Jazz looked like they had no idea that they were playing in an elimination game. There was no defensive intensity, no effort rebounding, no flow to the offense and not a single modicum of urgency.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets looked like they knew exactly the stakes of the game.
Before the game, Denver coach Mike Malone said that his team was relaxed, confident, joking around in the locker room and that confidence showed through the first two periods and into the final moments.
“We were dead in the water in the first half,” Snyder said. “We weren’t playing well in a lot of ways.”
Then Mitchell showed up, Gobert found his place in the offense, and all of a sudden, the Jazz were playing defense with intention and ferocity.
With 2:39 left in the third, after Mitchell had scored 13 of the Jazz’s 19 points in the quarter, cutting the Nuggets 14-point halftime lead to just five points, Snyder called for a timeout. Mitchell stood on the sideline staring across the court at the benches, determination in his eyes.
“This is one of the toughest losses that I’ve been involved in.” — Jazz coach Quin Snyder
“I’d go to war with any one of these guys in the locker room, any one of these coaches,” Mitchell said. “We could have easily chalked it up in the first half and said, ‘Well,’ but we have grit and fight, and that’s all you can really ask for as a whole.”
Coincidentally, despite everything that he would give to the remaining 14:39 of the game, Mitchell would collapse in that very same spot on the court when the game was over, thinking not about what went wrong in Game 7, but why the Jazz were even there in the first place.
“This is one of the toughest losses that I’ve been involved in,” Snyder said.
The crushing nature of losing a series is already tough for any team to deal with, but this one is particularly painful because the Jazz had three games to close the Nuggets out.
“That’s what hurts the most,” Mitchell said. “We can go to my 8-second violation in Game 1, we can go with blowing a 15-point lead in Game 5, we can go to not matching their level in Game 6. ... There’s so many things that I just feel like we could have did, and we didn’t, and I think that’s just where the hurt really comes.”
There are always details in a game that are easy to point to as the point that momentum shifted or that one team lost and the other team gained the upper hand. In a close game, like Tuesday’s Game 7, it’s even easier because it often comes down to the final shot.
But the Jazz feel like they never should have been playing in a Game 7. The series in their eyes was likely lost earlier, when they let mental errors get under their skin, when they let the Nuggets gain confidence, and when they weren’t able to match Denver’s intensity until the final half of the final game, when it was just out of reach.