Donovan Mitchell’s tomahawk slam had so much power it could’ve burst the NBA’s bubble.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone stood stone faced, arms crossed and barely turned his head to watch. No one on the court – not even Nikola Jokic, who’d thrown the careless turnover – even faked an attempt to give chase.
Even with 13 minutes left in the game, his third-quarter demolition was the moment the Jazz took a 2-1 series lead. The dunk put an embarrassing exclamation point on Denver’s 30-point deficit, and the Nuggets still had a fourth quarter to play.
The Jazz throttled the Nuggets in Friday’s Game 3, 124-87, leaving absolutely no doubt who the favorite to win the series was. Were it not for Denver’s riveting overtime win in Game 1, they’d be looking at a 3-0 series deficit.
Malone said before the game he felt there were times during Game 2 the Nuggets played with the urgency of a regular-season affair. If that was the case, then Denver’s effort for most of the first half Friday was that of a glorified scrimmage.
The Jazz played with the urgency of a team eager to extend their stay in Orlando. The Nuggets, meanwhile, looked more indifferent than engaged.
Jokic finished with 15 points and six assists, while his Utah counterpart, Rudy Gobert, imposed his will on the paint. Gobert had 24 points and 14 rebounds, his rim-rattling dunks setting the tone from opening tip.
Mitchell finished with 20 points, but it was Mike Conley, who missed the first two games for the birth of his son, whose demoralizing 3-pointers kept kicking the Nuggets as they tried to stand. Conley had six of Utah’s 17 3-pointers and gashed open the wound that served as the basis for the Game 2 blowout.
Ever since his Game 1 heroics, Jamal Murray has been mostly neutralized by Utah’s Royce O’Neale. For the second consecutive game he was underwhelming and largely taken out of his rhythm. His 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting wasn’t close to the production the Nuggets need from him.
Denver’s 17 turnovers undermined any chance of finding an offensive footing.
Malone projected a breezy attitude between Games 2 and 3, illustrative of a coach who’d pointed out his team’s lapses and was eager to see whether they’d gain a foothold. Specifically, he said the Nuggets were taking away nothing from Utah’s attack. Throughout the series, the Jazz felt no resistance from the 3-point line, lived in the paint and capitalized on their second-chance opportunities.
“I like to believe that I am a defensive minded coach, even though you wouldn’t tell that by how we’re playing right now,” Malone said Thursday. “This is probably the greatest frustration I have right now, and it’s early. We’ve only played two playoffs games, some have only played one. But I feel the issue with our defense right now is that we’re giving up everything.
“… We have to take two of those three away,” he said. “We can’t give the Utah Jazz everything.”
Over two quarters, the Nuggets did.
The Jazz eviscerated Denver’s pick-and-roll scheme, pounded them inside and continued to expose its awful 3-point defense. Only some of it could’ve been remedied with more effort. Gobert finished the first half with 20 points and 11 rebounds, often making Jokic look helpless on his rolls.
On offense, the Nuggets couldn’t get out of their own way. Their offensive sets looked tentative and disjointed, leading to 11 first-half turnovers. Were it not for a late 14-6 spurt to close the first half, it would’ve been a completely demoralizing show of investment.