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Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Survive and Advance: Denver Defeats Utah 80-78 in Game Seven

"Survive and advance" is a phrase often used in reference to the NCAA Basketball Tournament but it applies to the thrilling--or heartbreaking, depending on your perspective--conclusion to the Denver-Utah first round series. Denver led 80-78 and appeared to be poised to clinch the game at the free throw line after Gary Harris stole the ball from Donovan Mitchell, but instead Torrey Craig inexplicably drove to the hoop and missed a layup. Rudy Gobert snared the rebound and passed to Mike Conley, who fired a three pointer just before time expired. The cliche about "a game of inches" never rang more true than after Conley's shot went halfway down the hoop and then spun out as the buzzer sounded. Those few inches determined the fate of both teams; the Nuggets survived and will advance to face the L.A. Clippers, and the Jazz are heading home.

This series was a roller coaster ride, with Utah taking a 3-1 lead and then Denver storming back to force a game seven. Denver's Jamal Murray and Utah's Donovan Mitchell set a host of scoring records in the first six games. One wonders if the high scoring exploits in this series--and in the "bubble" in general--can be explained by all of the games being played at a neutral site, by a lack of travel, and/or by the players being refreshed from having extended time off before the restart. It is worth remembering that the two highest scoring playoff games--Michael Jordan's 63 points in 1986, and Elgin Baylor's 61 points in 1961--were both authored by players who missed substantial portions of the preceding regular seasons. Similarly, Mitchell's 57 points in game one of this series--the third highest single game playoff output ever--came after a shortened regular season (and a four month break).

Denver's Nikola Jokic played very well in the first six games (25.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.7 apg, .513 field goal shooting) but his all-around play was overshadowed by the Murray-Mitchell scoring pyrotechnics. However, Jokic was by far the best player in game seven, scoring a game-high 30 points, grabbing a team-high 14 rebounds, passing for four assists, and shooting 12-23 from the field.  After averaging 34.0 ppg on .585 field goal shooting in the first six games of the series, Murray scored 10 points on 4-7 field goal shooting in the first half, but he shot just 3-14 from the field in the second half to finish with 17 points on 7-21 field goal shooting.  

Mitchell averaged 38.7 ppg on .548 field goal shooting in the first six games, but he struggled mightily in the first half of game seven, scoring just seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting while committing five turnovers. Mitchell had four more turnovers in the second half--including one on the Jazz' second to last possession--and he shot 6-15 from the field to finish with 22 points on 9-22 field goal shooting with nine turnovers and just one assist. Commentators selectively decide which moments to focus on but--as Mitchell noted in his post-game press conference after game seven--all possessions matter, and Mitchell lamented various errors/lapses that he and his team made throughout the series; were it not for those mistakes, the series may not have been decided by a last second shot. Utah had a 3-1 lead, and the Jazz missed many opportunities to finish the series prior to game seven.

"Stat gurus" rave about the value of three point shooting and drawing fouls and offensive efficiency, but this game demonstrated once again that in playoff basketball--and particularly in a seventh game--defense and mental toughness become paramount. In game seven, every possession becomes a mental and physical grind, and the shooting percentages often plummet. During the Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance," the Bulls had to survive game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Indiana Pacers; the Bulls won 88-83 as Michael Jordan shot 9-25 from the field--but Jordan grabbed five of the Bulls' 22 offensive rebounds as the Bulls outrebounded the Pacers 50-34. Similarly, in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant shot 6-24 from the field but he grinded his way to a game-high 23 points plus 15 rebounds as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics (the first of a series of super teams put together in the past dozen years or so). Jordan and Bryant are both in a special category of players who can not only string together 30 point games during long playoff runs after long regular seasons, but can also overcome the mental and physical grind that it takes to win a game seven. Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals, while Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals; they produced at an elite level for an extended period of time. Look at how drained Murray and Mitchell were by the seventh game of a first round series after having the benefit of four months off, and then multiply that by all of the regular season games and all of the playoff games that Jordan and Bryant played, and only then can one start to appreciate the greatness that Jordan and Bryant exemplified.

On Wednesday night, the "small ball" Houston Rockets will rely on their high variance three point shooting to attempt to survive and advance versus the underdog Oklahoma City Thunder. It is a good bet that the Houston-Oklahoma City game seven will be decided not by three pointers made but rather by which team does better at grinding out possessions. Chris Paul advanced past the first round in six of his first 14 seasons, while James Harden advanced past the first round in six of his first 10 seasons (including four out of seven since he went to Houston and became the Rockets' top offensive option), so the only thing that we know for sure is that one of these players who often does not play in the second round will make it at least that far this year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:57 AM



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