By Shane Gravlin
The buzzer blared, the clock flashed zeros and the players held their breath as point guard Mike Conley hurled up a last-second three-pointer to try to send the Utah Jazz into the next round of the NBA playoffs.
The ball rimmed out by a margin of centimeters, sealing an improbable 3-1 Denver Nuggets series comeback over their Rocky Mountain rival.
After falling into a dreadful 3-1 hole, the Nuggets fought and clawed their way back to become only the 12th NBA team of all time to overcome the deficit — the first time since LeBron James’ Cavaliers did it in the 2016 NBA Finals.
In the third quarter of Game 5, Utah led by as many as 15, and Denver looked all but done. In fact, according to ESPN, with 9:43 remaining in the third and the Jazz up 71-56, their projection calculated that the Jazz had a 91.8% chance of winning the game and thus the series too.
The Jazz were so, so close to putting the nail in the coffin, but Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets as a group would not be buried.
In Games 4, 5 and 6, Jamal Murray scored 50, 42 and 50 respectively. For Utah, their sharp-shooting slinger Donovan Mitchell went toe-to-toe with Murray, and it resulted in a series for the ages.
Entering the 2020 postseason, Michael Jordan (in 1988) and Allen Iverson (in 2001) were the only players in NBA history to ever post two 50-point games in a single playoff series. Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell joined that elite company this round, and it felt like a heavy-weight boxing match.
Game 7 would follow a different script. The Nuggets defense was impenetrable initially, but their offense cooled off — no, froze completely — which let the Jazz back into the game. The Nuggets scored 30 points in the entire second half … and won.
The Nuggets narrowly escaped 80-78 in an extremely low-scoring game. While Jamal Murray didn’t drop jaws, he put up 17, and “the Joker” Nikola Jokić hit a razzle-dazzle lay-up which would prove to be the game-winner, scoring 30 points to go along with 14 rebounds.
The last moments of the game were equally exciting and confusing. After Jokić hit the inside shot to give Denver a two-point edge, the defense forced a Jazz turnover with only seconds left on the clock and left the ball in their best free throw shooter’s hands: Jamal Murray’s.
Instead of dribbling out the clock and letting the Jazz foul him to send him to the line to sink game-clinching free throws, he dished it to Torrey Craig. No disrespect to the offensive ability of Torrey Craig, but that is not who the Nuggets wanted to have the ball in that situation. In the stress of the moment, Torrey Craig forced up a tough shot instead of taking a foul and missed, placing the ball in Utah’s hands and giving them a shot to win the game and series. Luck was on Denver’s side however, as Mike Conley’s almost-buzzer-beater rattled out narrowly in an appropriately thrilling end to a historic series.
Statistically, 95.3% of NBA teams that get out to 3-1 leads wind up winning the series. The Nuggets are now in a special group of teams that have made the unlikely comeback.
Now, the Nuggets face the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semi-final.
Edited by Emma Moloney