The first neutral-court Game 7 in NBA history absolutely did not disappoint. After six of the highest-scoring individual performances in playoff history, Game 7 was completely and utterly dominated by defense. The Jazz scored only 36 first-half points. The Nuggets scored 15 points in the first 16 minutes of the second half. The stars were exhausted, hurting and practically limped to the finish line. But when it was all said and done, Denver stood on top, 80-78. They will now take on the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round.
The Jazz may be going home, but they will be able to take pride in a tremendous comeback effort after falling down by as many as 19 in the first half. Donovan Mitchell carried the offensive load in the third quarter, and then Rudy Gobert owned the paint in the fourth. But a hook shot from Nikola Jokic with 27.5 seconds remaining gave the Nuggets the game and the series. After perhaps the most exciting seven first-round games in NBA history, Denver squeaked by Utah in a Game 7 for the ages.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from tonight's classic.
1. Depth was the difference
With 6:54 remaining in the second quarter, Rudy Gobert left the game with three fouls. He did not return in the first half, and Denver expanded their lead by two points in that span. That was the difference in the game. It obviously could have been a good deal worse, but it was always the difference between these two teams. Utah, with arguably the worst bench in the NBA, relied so heavily on their superstars. Denver, at least to a degree, was more diversified.
Michael Porter Jr. was the best player on the floor for a stretch in the second quarter. He gave Denver 10 points and nine rebounds in only 17 minutes. Every Utah bench player had a negative plus-minus in this game. The Nuggets could survive a 7-of-21 night from Jamal Murray. The Jazz couldn't live off of 9-of-22 from Mitchell. Utah's entire offense relied on Mitchell all series. All it took was one bad half to end their season.
That wasn't a design flaw. This series plays out very differently if Bojan Bogdanovic had been available. But the overall message Utah should take from this series is that it needs to improve its bench. The Nuggets got the majority of their points from Jokic and Murray, but they got enough to survive from everyone else. Utah didn't.
2. So much for the Mitchell-Gobert drama
Don't let the raw numbers fool you. Mitchell was absolutely sensational in the second half, generating virtually every good shot Utah found down the stretch. Gobert was just as good. As Mitchell wore down in the final minutes, he took over, scoring 10 points and pulling in 12 rebounds in the fourth quarter alone. Mitchell owned the perimeter on both ends, defending Murray for long stretches while initiating Utah's offense, while Gobert did the same on the interior, finishing everything inside, rebounding almost every miss and containing Jokic's post-ups.
Perhaps as importantly, the two seemed to revel in the moment. They flexed after big plays and poured their hearts onto the court. Their personal dynamic after their coronavirus diagnoses remains something of a mystery, but the two of them nearly singlehandedly elevated the Jazz to an upset in a series they had no business winning. This duo still works on the court. They seemed to enjoy sharing the spotlight in Game 7. Breaking the two of them up now, after the game and series they just had, would be idiotic. The Jazz are a few tweaks away from contention with this group.
3. Out of the frying pan, into the fire
It took everything Denver had just to get by Utah. Jamal Murray is clearly playing through pain. The entire roster was exhausted by the end of Game 7. And their reward for surviving one of the most grueling first-round series of all time?
A second-round date with the Clippers. The last two times these teams met, the Nuggets were blown out of the building by a combined 42 points. Murray averaged only 13.3 points on 37.5 percent shooting against Los Angeles this season, and that came when he was healthy and rested. Denver deserves to celebrate this victory, but the real test is yet to come. Things are going to get a whole lot tougher on Thursday.