Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic could only put both of his hands and a towel on the top of his head on the sideline as he watched the final, frantic seconds of Game 7 unfold and Mike Conley launch a 3-pointer for the win.
“I bet we were cussing him out the full [time] that Mike [went to] shoot the 3,” Jokic said.
“We are laughing right now. But it could be tragic.”
The Nuggets and Utah Jazz‘s first-round series appropriately finished with a roller-coaster ending, as Denver’s Torrey Craig missed a fast-break layup with 4.4 seconds left in trying to seal the game, only to see Conley’s potential winning 3-pointer spin out of the cylinder at the buzzer to give Denver an 80-78 Game 7 victory Tuesday night in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
“Man … first off, if we lost the game on that layup, that would’ve been so bad,” Denver’s Jamal Murray told Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter. “Mike almost hit that. I was looking at that shot like, ‘Man, if this goes in, I’m going to be heartbroken.'”
Donovan Mitchell, who engaged in a prolific duel with Murray, laid on the floor after the buzzer, having given it his all. Mitchell scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half and helped the Jazz hold a hobbled Murray to only 17 points.
Murray, who had scored 50, 42 and 50 points in his three previous games, lifted Mitchell up at the end of a series that saw them combine to score 475 points — the most combined points by opposing players in a series in playoff history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The Nuggets also joined an exclusive group by becoming only the 12th team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit and win a playoff series. The third seed in the Western Conference now faces the No. 2 LA Clippers, starting Thursday.
Denver had to survive this slugfest of a Game 7. The Nuggets scored just 30 points in the second half but seemed to have the win secured when Gary Harris poked the ball away from Mitchell on a drive. The ball went straight into Murray’s hands, and Murray and the Nuggets raced toward a fast break looking to seal the game with an easy basket.
Instead of pulling the ball out, Murray sprinted toward the basket and passed to Craig, who missed a layup, sending the Jazz running back the other way and finding Conley open on the left wing.
Conley nearly spoiled another monster Game 7 performance by Jokic. After watching Murray carry the scoring load in this series, Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds and the basket that proved to be the difference.
With 27.8 seconds left in an offensive grind of a finale, Jokic backed Rudy Gobert into the paint, pump-faked, turned and spun before lofting a hook 12.9 feet in the air over Gobert’s outstretched arm while fading off one foot.
Playing in their third consecutive Game 7 since last postseason, the Nuggets rode their All-Star center.
Murray was held to 7-for-21 shooting and seemed hampered after he took a knee from Joe Ingles to his left thigh in the first half.
“We are not in a Game 7 without Jamal, but quietly, Nikola Jokic was having an outstanding series, as well,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “And you knew that they would take away Jamal Murray; they tried to do different things tonight, that was their adjustment. We were prepared for that. We knew they would try to get the ball out of his hands. That is when you need Nikola to step up.”
Jokic carried the Nuggets, scoring 17 of Denver’s 30 second-half points, the highest percentage (56.7%) of a team’s points in a second half of a Game 7 over the past 20 years.
Jokic has risen to the occasion in Game 7, finishing with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in all three of the Game 7s in which he has played. Only Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki have had three such Game 7s over the past 20 postseasons, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.
“Dude’s a joke,” Murray said of his All-Star teammate. “He does everything. Post up, he shoots it, he passes, he pushes the pace, he’s smart, and we definitely needed him today.
“He made clutch baskets and just kept us poised. Even when I didn’t have it going or I missed some bunnies or we messed up on defense and they made their push, especially in the third quarter. He was our leader for that second half, and he did it all, so, he’s gonna be a Hall of Famer one day.”
Denver led by 19 early in the third but trailed by three with 8:06 left in the fourth, as Gobert (19 points, 18 rebounds) seemed to be everywhere in the paint.
But Jokic and Murray scored just enough down the stretch, and the Nuggets survived Conley’s miss to advance. Now, Denver prepares to face Kawhi Leonard and Paul George after a difficult first round and an emotional week, with players meeting to decide whether to continue playing last Wednesday in the aftermath of Wisconsin police shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back.
“With everything we were facing, down 3-1, stoppage in play, are we going to continue, are we not, a lot of teams would have just given in,” Malone said. “Especially when you consider we have been 57 days away from our families. Man, do we really want to extend our stay. And that is where the pride comes into play. Our players, they wanted it.”
“That is the amazing thing about this — three straight games of win or go home,” Malone said of the Nuggets overcoming their series deficit. “The resiliency, the mental toughness, and the want, the will to win was on full display for everybody to see. Couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”