The NBA’s game of the year didn’t have a single fan in attendance.
Together, the Jazz and Nuggets painted a bubble masterpiece Saturday, matching wits in an unforgettable overtime thriller the few of us who chose to watch hoops instead of golf (the PGA Championship was airing simultaneously on CBS) won’t soon forget. Between the endless parade of do-or-die heroics and controversial calls, Kevin Harlan’s exhausted vocal cords are going to need a day or two to recover.
Don’t be fooled by Donovan Mitchell’s mediocre shooting line (12-for-33). The first-time All-Star was a killer Saturday, propping up the Jazz with a flurry of impossible shots. The 23-year-old Louisville alum willed Utah to overtime with a head-spinning sequence at the end of regulation, embracing his inner Reggie Miller (who served as Harlan’s color analyst Saturday) by netting five points in less than seven seconds with two coming on this game-tying layup with 0.9 on the clock.
The extra period didn’t start the way Utah wanted as Denver, largely fueled by the Herculean efforts of Nikola Jokic, surged to a six-point advantage. But Mitchell wasn’t ready to go home yet. The third-year guard went ballistic, exploding for eight points in the final minute and a half of overtime as Utah quickly made up the ground. With 20.7 seconds to go in a tie game, there was no doubt who was taking the last shot for Utah.
Here’s where things really took a turn for the insane. Jokic, who Gregg Popovich recently called the reincarnation of Larry Bird, cleverly cut through the Jazz defense for a game-tying layup. Only one problem—the clock never started. After a lengthy delay, Secaucus (home of the NBA’s review center) determined Jokic did get the shot off in time, leaving three tenths of a second to spare. Utah actually got two rebuttals with 0.3 remaining—officials instituted a rare “redo” after game operators errantly began the clock before the ball was touched—though both attempts came up empty.
The second overtime was only slightly less chaotic with Jokic and Mitchell again trading blows. With two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert unavailable (he fouled out late in the first overtime), Utah struggled to keep Denver out of the paint as the Nuggets enforced their will down low. The Jazz still had a pulse with 4.2 seconds left after an exhausted Jamal Murray bricked both of his two free-throw tries. But with no timeouts and the length of the court to go, Mitchell had to throw up a desperation heave as time expired. Denver escaped with a 134-132 victory as Mitchell misfired on his half-court Hail Mary.
The Nuggets needed every one of Jokic’s 30 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, with the seven-footer accomplishing those numbers on smooth 11-for-21 shooting (52.4 percent). Mitchell left the court with 35 points, his most since late February, over 47 minutes of hard-fought action.
Saturday’s afternoon nail-biter was as riveting as any game we’ve seen in the bubble and, if the standings hold, there could be a lot more where that came from. If the Nuggets and Jazz stay at their current seeds (third and sixth respectively), they’ll see each other again in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Sign me up for that.