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, Mitchell’s 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 no doubt who the favorite to win this first-round playoff series was. Were it not for Denver’s riveting overtime win in Game 1, they’d be looking at a 3-0 series deficit.
Mitchell’s mammoth dunk may have unofficially sealed it, but according to Malone, the game was over probably an hour earlier.
“We lost this game at the end of the first quarter, start of the second quarter,” Malone said.
It was then, after Rudy Gobert’s already strong start to Friday’s game, that he continued to undress Jokic inside. After a smattering of layups, dunks, finger rolls and hook shots, all of which were barely contested, Gobert was already sitting on 12 points and seven rebounds at the end of the first quarter. The Jazz closed on a 12-4 run to open up a double-digit lead.
An impartial observer might’ve questioned whether the Nuggets even wanted to be on the court, their long faces and dejected body language suggesting otherwise.
Barely two minutes later, Utah had already rained three 3-pointers, two of which came from Game 3 addition Mike Conley. He had missed the first two games for the birth of his son, and made up for his absences in short order.
Conley’s third 3-pointer of the game gave the Jazz a 34-16 lead just moments into the second quarter. At that point, Malone had seen enough.
“It was a wrap,” he said. “That was, everything after that, the second half and the last eight minutes of the second quarter, was just window dressing.”
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.
Game 1 hero Jamal Murray was neutralized yet again by Jazz wing Royce O’Neale. Murray’s energy is often what the team feeds off, and O’Neale’s stout defense has all-but suffocated Murray’s impact. His 12 points and six assists, like in Game 2, were well below the production levels Denver needs from him.
“So we just gotta look in the mirror and come back ready to play, because they’re playing out of their mind right now, just shooting the ball really well,” Murray said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, so it’s time for us to get ours back.”
Jokic finished with 15 points and six assists, while his Utah counterpart, Gobert, imposed his will in the paint. Gobert had 24 points and 14 rebounds, his rim-rattling dunks setting the tone from the opening tip.
“To be honest, I think I just missed shots,” Jokic said. “I mean, I took all the shots that I wanted. I mean the shots that I took, I’ll sleep really good.”
As will Conley, who drained seven of Utah’s 18 3-pointers and gashed open the wound that served as the basis for the Game 2 blowout.
Malone projected an easy 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. That was decidedly not the case as the Jazz showed, again, that Denver’s defense offers the resistance of a summer breeze.
“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.