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Donovan Mitchell And Jamal Murray Are Taking Different Paths To Domination

The most compelling on-court story in the NBA right now is whatever the heck is happening between Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, each of whom apparently cannot be stopped. In the first-round series between the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets, the star guards have stolen the show. With their combined performances, Mitchell and Murray now account for the first- (101 in Game 4), third- (94 in Game 6) and fourth-most points (93 in Game 1) scored by opposing players in the same playoff game.

Mitchell is averaging a playoff-leading 38.7 points per game, shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 55.4 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He scored 57 points in Utah’s Game 1 loss, the third-most points anyone has ever put up in a playoff game. He had merely 50 points combined in Utah’s blowout wins in Games 2 and 3 but then went for 51 in Game 4 as he outdueled Murray, who dropped 50. Mitchell did all he could to help the Jazz close out the series, scoring 74 points on 48 shots in Games 5 and 6, but it wasn’t enough — largely because his counterpart went absolutely nuclear.

Murray scored 142 points on just 74 shot attempts across Games 4 through 6, a point total for three consecutive postseason games exceeded only by Michael Jordan (1988) and Jerry West (1965). In the process, Murray became both the first player since Allen Iverson (2001) to score 40 or more in three consecutive postseason games and the first player since His Airness (1990) to score 40 or more while also grabbing five or more rebounds and dishing out five or more assists in three straight playoff contests. With their two 50-point games apiece, Murray and Mitchell have now each gone for half a hundred more times in this postseason than the entire NBA combined did between 2007 and 2016.1

Add this all up, and you have two players whose production through the first six games of the series has been nearly identical. But while the two stars have produced similar raw totals, the players have attacked the opposing defenses quite differently.

Both players have been absolutely engulfed in flames during fourth quarters (and the one overtime period) in the series, but they have gone about their late-game explosions in disparate fashions. Murray has connected on a totally bonkers 16 of 19 shots from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter and overtime, accounting for 48 of his 78 points in those periods (a share of approximately 62 percent). Mitchell, on the other hand, has simply gotten himself to the free-throw line late in games — and converted. He has connected on 22 of his 24 foul shots in the final period, for about 28 percent of his 78 total fourth-quarter-and-overtime points.

Overall, Mitchell has done most of his work with the ball in his hands. Second Spectrum tracking data shows that he has possessed the ball 43.2 percent of the time the Jazz have been on offense while he was in the game, a rate that exceeds even that of Murray and Denver (38.8 percent).

According to Second Spectrum, Mitchell’s 257 pick and rolls are the second-most any player has run in the playoffs so far, behind only Luka Dončić’s 328. Those ball screens have also been wildly profitable: Among the 20 players who have worked off at least 100 on-ball screens during the playoffs, Mitchell’s have yielded the second-most points per possession.

Mitchell has been able to freely make his way into the lane, where he has shown off a delightful array of interior finishes. His 126 drives are second-most in the playoffs so far, again behind only Dončić. And like his pick and rolls, his drives have been wildly profitable: Among the 24 players who have driven from the perimeter to the paint at least 50 times during the postseason, Mitchell’s drives have yielded the sixth-most points per possession.

What Utah has done better than almost anything else in this series, though, is put Mitchell into favorable matchups in isolation. Whether with a ball screen and then a switch, cross-matching in transition or other means, Mitchell has repeatedly been able to draw the likes of Jerami Grant (the Nuggets’ preferred defender on Mitchell for most of the series), Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris or Nikola Jokić into open space and break them down with ease.

While Murray has also done excellent work in isolation and on pick and rolls, he has engaged in those actions less often than Mitchell. By contrast, even though he is nominally a point guard and Mitchell plays the two, Murray has actually done more work away from the ball. His 72 dribble handoffs are the most in the playoffs so far, per Second Spectrum, while his 94 off-ball screens taken rank third. Murray has been more likely than Mitchell to create a shot either for himself or a teammate one pass away on handoffs and off-ball screens, while they’ve been equally likely to do so in isolation and on ball-screens.

Mitchell and Murray are scoring in different ways

Actions from Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, by number and share leading directly to a shot, turnover or foul

Mitchell Murray
Action Number % direct Number % direct
Isolations 53 88.7% 21 90.5%
Pick and rolls 257 76.7 184 75.5
Dribble handoffs 39 41.0 72 73.6
Off-ball screens 41 36.6 94 56.4

Direct actions end with the ball-handler shooting, getting fouled, turning the ball over or making a pass that produces a shot attempt within one dribble of the catch.

Source: Second Spectrum

It’s no surprise that Murray has been the most frequent recipient of dribble handoffs during the playoffs. The only two players who received more handoffs during the regular season (Bradley Beal and Devin Booker) are both watching the postseason from home. Unsurprisingly, Murray’s regular-season dribble handoffs were also incredibly profitable: Among 67 players who received 250 handoffs or more, Murray generated the seventh-most points per possession for his team.

In the playoffs, he’s actually taken things to a new level. The 72 handoffs with Murray as the recipient have yielded 87 points through the first six games of the series. That’s the most in the league. The next two closest marks are from Mitchell and his teammate Mike Conley, whose 78 combined handoffs have generated 88 points.

The Jazz, like other Nuggets opponents, surely know that the Murray handoff is coming, especially late in games. And yet they still can’t manage to stop it. That’s just the type of roll Murray is on at the moment.

When your offensive scheme is working this well, there’s no real reason to change tactics. So in tonight’s Game 7, we should expect more of the same from both Mitchell and Murray: Donovan, breaking down an overmatched Nugget in space; Jamal, speeding around the corner to take a handoff or curl around a screen, splashing jumpers in the grill of a hapless Jazzman. With a trip to the second round on the line, each player will need to be at his best. Considering the way things have gone so far, we shouldn’t expect anything less.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

CORRECTION (Sept. 1, 2020, 3:06 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of 50-point games from Jamal Murray this postseason. He has scored 50 points twice in the playoffs, not three times, and Mitchell has also scored 50 points twice.

Footnotes

  1. Ray Allen’s 51-point explosion in Game 6 of the Celtics’ 2009 first-round series against the Bulls was the only one.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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