The Nuggets said nothing and everything all at once.
In the emotional aftermath of Sunday’s Game 4 heartbreaker, which left the Nuggets just one loss from elimination, coach Michael Malone, and superstars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic all were diplomatic about the free-throw disparity that occurred against the Jazz.
The Nuggets made it the free-throw line 13 times in their 129-127 loss. The Jazz went there 36 times, and Donovan Mitchell made 18 trips himself.
“We’ve struggled to get to the line, but I’m not going to really comment on that,” Malone said. “I’m not giving the league any of my money.”
Malone did, however, offer his view on what became a crucial sequence during Murray’s fourth-quarter eruption. Murray had already hung 45 of his 50 points when the Nuggets were trailing 124-120 with 28 seconds remaining.
Instead of launching another 3-pointer – five of his nine 3-pointers came in the fourth quarter – Murray barreled into the lane and challenged reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert at the rim. Gobert initially maintained his verticality, but Murray appeared to contend to officials that Gobert hit his arm on the way down.
“Jamal drives to the basket, gets fouled, but they don’t call it,” Malone said. “At least from my angle and the replay on the big board, it looked like he got fouled. And that would’ve been a big basket for us, two free throws, cut it to two at that point.”
Replays showed Murray pleading with officials, but he declined to say what explanation, if any, he received from the referees.
“I’m not going to speak on it,” Murray said. “I don’t want to get fined.”
Despite playing 39 minutes and taking 24 shots, Jokic got to the free-throw line only twice all game.
“I gotta look at the tape and find a way to help Nikola and to see what’s going on out there,” Malone said, frustrated with the whistle, but also unwilling to attribute the loss to the disparity.
Jokic was tactful in response as well.
“To be honest, even when we were aggressive, we didn’t have the benefit of the whistle,” Jokic said. “That’s not the reason, I’m just saying. When we had aggressive moves to the basket, we didn’t have the benefit of the whistle.”
While the officials played a role, especially on the Murray drive, the Nuggets’ defense is still within their control.
Donovan Mitchell poured in a game-high 51 points, and 18 in the fourth quarter, as the Nuggets struggled mightily to contain his pick-and-roll attacks. Furthermore, the Jazz shot 57% overall, including 14-of-29 from the 3-point line.
After the blowouts in Games 2 and 3, there were aspects of what happened Sunday night they could be proud of. Their fight, for one, was that of a playoff team, and their urgency on the offensive glass was obvious. But through four games, it’s apparent how difficult it is to impede the Mitchell-Gobert combo, and unless that changes, a free-throw disparity won’t be the difference in deciding this first-round series.