On Aug. 21, the Utah Jazz seemed all but guaranteed to face the L.A. Clippers in the second round of the COVID-19-delayed NBA playoffs, and their opponents from Denver seemed dead in the water.
What unfolded over the next three games was a disappointing moment in the learning process of a young team, and evidence that the Jazz aren’t quite where they need to be just yet.
Utah became just the 12th team in NBA history to squander a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series, as Denver capped an unlikely comeback with an ugly 80-78 win in Tuesday night’s Game 7. The Nuggets tried to give the Jazz one last opportunity to seize victory from the jaws of defeat in the final seconds, but as Mike Conley’s buzzer-beating heave bounced off the rim, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles dropped to the floor in disbelief.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Even with Bojan Bogdanovic out with an injury, the Jazz looked like the better team for most of the first four games. The series could have ended in a sweep, had Mitchell not been called for an eight-second violation late in Game 1 before the Nuggets won in overtime. But Denver’s experience helped bring the Nuggets back from the brink of elimination.
The Nuggets have now played three series in a row that have gone to Game 7, beating San Antonio in the first round last year before losing to Portland. Denver looked like it had been there before. The Jazz looked awful for the first two quarters before Mitchell and Rudy Gobert dragged them back into the game. In the end, the Nuggets made just a couple more plays than the Jazz did.
Having the season end this way is a disappointment, no doubt. However, Tuesday’s loss can also serve to make the Jazz a better team in the long run.
Utah now has the experience of playing a knock-down, drag-out series against an elite team — and, make no mistake, the Nuggets are good, having won back-to-back Northwest Division titles. It was just a matter of Denver having a bit more big-game experience. There isn’t any other way to learn how to play in a tough situation than to actually play in it. The next time an elimination game rolls around, the Jazz will be better-equipped to handle it.
The loss aside, this series was one for the record books, and it might have been the beginning of a beautiful rivalry. Mitchell and Denver’s Jamal Murray are two of the league’s most exciting young guards, and their rivalry is destined to take center stage in the years to come after they set an NBA record for most points scored between two opposing players in a single playoff series. Gobert and Denver’s Nikola Jokic are both elite centers with completely different styles. The next time they meet, the Jazz will have Bogdanovic healthy, and the Nuggets will have Will Barton back in the lineup.
If this is the future of the Western Conference playoffs, basketball fans will take it.
Just don’t be surprised if this is a conference finals matchup sometime in the next few years.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He is looking forward to seeing what Mitchell and Gobert do for an encore next season — whenever that might be. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.