Donovan Mitchell is confident that his Utah Jazz have learned from their past playoff mistakes and will use last season’s 3-1 meltdown at the hands of the Denver Nuggets as “fuel” to close out the Memphis Grizzlies this time around.
After taking a commanding 3-1 series lead for the second year in a row in the first round — thanks to a 120-113 Game 4 win in Memphis on Monday night — Mitchell acknowledged that he believes his team has grown from last postseason’s bubble breakdown.
“We’ve seen this before,” Mitchell said after scoring 30 points. “We’ve been here before. This is the exact moment we’ve played — we’ve played up to being this team that we’ve been, because of that moment, I would say. Because that fueled a lot of this season. And we’re here again and we’re going to go out there and just do what we do and not really relish in the past. Although, it definitely is fuel.”
Part of the reason Mitchell sounds so confident is that since he returned in Game 2 from an ankle injury, his team has answered every challenge the tough Memphis group has thrown at it. After outlining how the Grizzlies have repeatedly come back in games no matter how far they’ve gotten down, Mitchell noted that last postseason’s defeat gave the Jazz a greater sense of focus throughout this campaign and in this series.
“That’s what really lost that in the bubble was we stopped executing on the little things,” MItchell said. “Because we felt like, ‘Oh, it’s OK, they got to win three more times in a row.’ I think having that [experience] will allow us to kind of come in and be like, ‘All right, this is what we got to do.’ One more hit, one more sprint to the corner. Getting back on defense, taking a foul, whatever it may be.
“Having that be so fresh, having it be last year, I think that definitely helps us understanding that Game 5 isn’t a guarantee — just because we’re going home and we’ve won two in a row. This team is going to fight and compete. I think the biggest thing is our mental fortitude and continuing to go out there and play like we’re down 10.”
Jazz coach Quin Snyder echoed those sentiments, believing his group will be ready for the challenge that comes in a closeout game after the organization’s bubble history.
“I’m sure it’s something that the guys have discussed at various times,” Snyder said. “I think we’re looking at it more generally, as opposed to pointing to a specific series or a specific time. That situation in the bubble was a really unique one, and that’s certainly not to discount the fact that we were in a position that we want to be in again. But this is a different year, and this is a different team.
“We’ve got Bojan [Bogdanovic] back. Derrick [Favors] is here this year. There’s some things about our group right now — and I think there’s a maturity. We’ve been through a lot, and I think when that happens, all of us, whether it’s personally or certainly the team, you pull each other along. And I think that’s the growth process that’s taken place with our team.”
Veteran guard Mike Conley, who struggled to find his rhythm at times last season in his first year with the Jazz, knows that his new team hasn’t forgotten the sour taste it had after blowing such a big lead versus the Nuggets.
“We obviously remember that feeling that we had last season,” Conley said. “And it’s not something we want to experience again. I think this team is different, I think the circumstances are a little bit different. Bojan’s back, and I think another year for me to be kind of comfortable in the situation I’m in.
“I think we got a different team, different mindset, and hopefully be able to get our minds focused on business and not let this one slip away like we did last year.”
For Mitchell, the incremental growth of the season came in how the Jazz celebrated Monday’s hard-fought victory.
“We didn’t come in the locker room like, ‘We got ’em,'” Mitchell said. “The job’s not done. It’s not finished. And I think that’s the message. I know that’s the message. One to 17, coaches, everybody. We have to go there and take care of home court back in Utah, and I think that’s where our head is at. This was a good win. There’s things we could have done much better. We’ll go ahead and execute that and take care of business at home.”
After all the ups and downs the Jazz have endured before, during and after the bubble, Snyder spoke with the conviction of a man who believes there will be a different outcome this time around in a similar postseason situation.
“Last year is last year,” Snyder said. “Just like the regular season is the regular season. I think there’s things that you take from the past that you learn from. There’s experience for our group that’s been going on for a while. This was a team that was questioned on every level last May, and those types of moments and that type of adversity, they’ve handled properly; you learn from it, and you’re better.”
NBA playoffs 2021 – Experts’ picks for Utah Jazz vs. LA Clippers and the conference semifinals
After a thrilling play-in tournament and opening-round action that saw the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers get bounced by the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks sweep the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, we’ve reached the conference semifinals.
Will the LA Clippers ride their Game 7 momentum into their series with the Utah Jazz? What will the Suns do for an encore against the Denver Nuggets? Can the Philadelphia 76ers hold off Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks if big man Joel Embiid is less than 100 percent? Who will win the heavyweight bout between the Brooklyn Nets and the Bucks?
Our panel of NBA experts picks every second-round series.
Western Conference semifinals
Jerry Bembry: Clippers in 6
Nick DePaula: Clippers in 6
Nick Friedell: Jazz in 6
Tim Legler: Jazz in 7
Zach Lowe: Clippers in 6
Tim MacMahon: Jazz in 7
Bobby Marks: Jazz in 6
Dave McMenamin: Clippers in 6
Monica McNutt: Jazz in 7
Kevin Pelton: Jazz in 7
Jorge Sedano: Clippers in 7
Ramona Shelburne: Clippers in 7
André Snellings: Clippers in 6
Marc J. Spears: Clippers in 7
Royce Young: Jazz in 6
Ohm Youngmisuk: Clippers in 7
Final tally: Clippers (9), Jazz (7).
Jerry Bembry: Suns in 6
Nick DePaula: Suns in 6
Nick Friedell: Suns in 6
Tim Legler: Nuggets in 7
Zach Lowe: Nuggets in 7
Tim MacMahon: Suns in 7
Bobby Marks: Suns in 6
Dave McMenamin: Suns in 7
Monica McNutt: Suns in 7
Kevin Pelton: Suns in 7
Jorge Sedano: Suns in 7
Ramona Shelburne: Suns in 7
André Snellings: Suns in 7
Marc J. Spears: Suns in 7
Royce Young: Suns in 7
Ohm Youngmisuk: Nuggets in 7
Final tally: Suns (13), Nuggets (3).
Eastern Conference semifinals
Note: Picks were made prior to Game 1 of the series.
Jerry Bembry: 76ers in 6
Nick DePaula: 76ers in 6
Nick Friedell: 76ers in 6
Tim Legler: 76ers in 7
Zach Lowe: 76ers in 7
Tim MacMahon: 76ers in 6
Bobby Marks: Hawks in 6
Dave McMenamin: 76ers in 6
Monica McNutt: 76ers in 6
Kevin Pelton: 76ers in 6
Jorge Sedano: 76ers in 6
Ramona Shelburne: 76ers in 7
André Snellings: Hawks in 6
Marc J. Spears: 76ers in 6
Royce Young: 76ers in 6
Ohm Youngmisuk: 76ers in 7
Final tally: 76ers (14), Hawks (2).
Note: Picks were made prior to Game 1 of the series.
Jerry Bembry: Nets in 6
Nick DePaula: Nets in 6
Nick Friedell: Bucks in 6
Tim Legler: Nets in 6
Zach Lowe: Nets in 7
Tim MacMahon: Nets in 7
Bobby Marks: Nets in 7
Dave McMenamin: Nets in 6
Monica McNutt: Bucks in 7
Kevin Pelton: Nets in 7
Jorge Sedano: Nets in 7
Ramona Shelburne: Nets in 7
André Snellings: Bucks in 6
Marc J. Spears: Nets in 7
Royce Young: Nets in 7
Ohm Youngmisuk: Nets in 6
Final tally: Nets (13), Bucks (3).
Michael Malone says Nuggets need to be ‘the more physical team,’ laments ‘soft mentality’ in Game 1 loss to Suns
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone felt a bad kind of déjà vu as he watched his team fade during the second half of Monday night’s 122-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series.
After seeing his team get blown out by the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, Malone lamented what he felt was his team’s “soft mentality” while watching the Nuggets — who led 58-57 at halftime — get outscored 65-47 in the final 24 minutes.
“This game to me was eerily similar to Game 1 against Portland,” Malone said after Monday night’s game. “I think we had way too many breakdowns tonight from a coverage standpoint. I think seven of their 13 3s tonight were from the corners and a lot of that was missed assignments, not communicating. We gave up eight and-1s tonight, I think [we] had a soft mentality. You can’t give up eight and-1s in a playoff game. If you’re going to foul somebody, foul them, and not let them get the and-1.”
It was an assessment that several of his players agreed with.
“Soft, that’s a good way to put it,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “Scared, that’s another way to play it. You could choose between them two words, either ‘soft’ or ‘scared,’ that’s what it felt like we were playing like. And then we was just breaking down. We were breaking down defensively, offensively we weren’t getting into what we needed to get into. We were letting them dictate our offense a little too much. Really just a lot of breakdowns.”
While Nuggets forward JaMychal Green also used the “soft” label, MVP favorite Nikola Jokic pushed back on the notion, believing that his team just needs to do a better job of dealing with Phoenix’s runs heading into Game 2 on Wednesday night.
“I don’t think so [that] we played soft,” Jokic said. “We have to do a better job, of course, handling the runs. I think in one moment they were on a 16-0 run … when things aren’t going our way we just need to be more decisive, I think. We need to know what we are doing as a group.”
Malone softened his initial assessment later in his postgame news conference with reporters, saying many in his group were “playing hard” and “competing,” but it was more of a frustration in the mentality the Nuggets had in allowing the Suns to impose their will on the game in a variety of areas.
“When we beat Portland in four games, we were the aggressor,” Malone said. “We were the more physical team, and that has to be the case. We’re undermanned. There’s a reason no one’s giving us a chance to win this series. We have to bring our best version of ourselves — tonight we didn’t get that from a lot and we’ll need it come Wednesday night.”
One of the reasons Malone still feels confident is because young forward Michael Porter Jr. is expected to play in Game 2, despite being limited in the second half because of a back issue suffered at the end of the first half.
Malone said he limited Porter’s minutes in the second half because he could tell the back issue was bothering Porter, and wanted to try and keep him fresh for what he hopes will be a long series. Even what appears to be a small setback is something to keep an eye on given Porter’s history of back issues.
“I’m always concerned when I see a guy obviously having a wrap on his back,” Malone said. “I didn’t think in that second half Michael was moving the way that I’m used to seeing him move. But I just spoke to him, I think he just tweaked it a little bit. He’ll get some treatment tonight, all day [Tuesday], and I fully expect Michael to be ready to go come Wednesday.”
Aided by improving shoulder, Chris Paul takes over in 4th quarter to close out Phoenix Suns’ Game 1 win over Denver Nuggets
There are many things Chris Paul is good at, but one of his most crucial skills is sensing a moment. It’s never about how he starts; it’s how he finishes.
And in Game 1 of Phoenix’s Western Conference semifinal series against the Denver Nuggets, Paul began slowly, hitting just two of his eight shots through three quarters. But as the Suns grabbed hold of Game 1, so did Paul, going 6-6 in the fourth quarter as Phoenix cruised to a 122-105 win over Denver.
“It’s in his hands, man,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “He’s made us comfortable … just knowing that he’s got it.”
Paul’s command of the game was on full display, with him methodically asserting himself early in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 consecutive points for the Suns as they widened their lead. He finished with 21 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds in 36 minutes, and while his grip on the fourth separated Phoenix, the team showcased its impressive balance and depth throughout.
All five starters finished in double figures, scoring at least 14 points. The Suns are the first team since the 2013 Golden State Warriors (Game 2 in round one) with four 20-point scorers on 55% shooting from the floor in a playoff game.
“That’s what I’ve said all season long: We have a team,” Paul said. “If you try to take one of us out or whatnot, we make the right play. Who you gonna leave open? Mikal [Bridges] is cash. Jae [Crowder] is cash. Cam [Johnson], I could keep going on and on and that’s the benefits of having a team.”
For Paul, better health was part of his fourth-quarter output, as he is now two weeks past his initial shoulder injury sustained in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s something he’s still dealing with, but as if Paul doesn’t already get better the longer the game goes on, his shoulder also does.
“It definitely loosens up,” Paul said. “One thing about it is you don’t get no practice time. The only way you get a chance to see how it is is during the game. It was good. It was fun to get out there and be involved. That last series was, that was tough. I’m glad to be back helping the team.”
Paul scored or assisted on 20 of the Suns’ final 34 points. It’s his ninth career playoff game with 20 points, 10 assists and one or fewer turnovers, passing LeBron James for the most in the league with that line since turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.
“He just made plays,” Devin Booker said. “Not only his scoring ability but getting everybody else involved. That’s been the story of the season for us, following him in that regard.”
The Suns don’t necessarily have a template to lean on Paul late in games the way the Oklahoma City Thunder did when Paul led the league in clutch-time scoring a season ago. They have the scoring of Booker and the well-rounded depth sprinkled throughout. But Paul is assertive when he needs to be, playing a cerebral game and picking his moments to take over.
“His ability to read the game, clock management, shot-making. He’s done it for a long time,” coach Monty Williams said. “Right now he’s probably critiquing himself and picking at some things he could do a lot better. He makes a lot of our stuff look better because he’s been in these situations before and understands the moment.”
At 36 years old, Paul is the oldest player in NBA history with 20 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds in a playoff game. Only four other players have put up that statline at age 35 or older: James (six times), Elgin Baylor, John Stockton and Dennis Johnson.
“Man, it’s a different game for him these days from when I was watching him play,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “He was a lot more explosive back in the day, getting to the cup. He’s always been really smart and he just keeps getting smarter. He’s a maestro out there orchestrating them. He really has uplifted that whole Phoenix team. Just how he talks, how he communicates with them out on the floor, you can tell that he just gives the entire team confidence.”
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