Donovan Mitchell vs. Jamal Murray Among NBA's All-Time Great Playoff Battles
The Denver Nuggets' 80-78 victory in Game 7 over the Utah Jazz was a battle of attrition and a stark contrast to the six games that preceded it.
Whereas Game 7 was all about the duel between big men Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert, they wouldn't have reached that point without a truly unprecedented showdown between Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray.
Following their efforts on depleted legs Tuesday, they finished the first-round matchup with averages of 36.3 and 31.6 points, respectively. Each had their own pair of 50-point games, and each eclipsed 30 made threes across the series.
Even if they never meet in the playoffs again (and we certainly hope they do), they'll go down as participants in one of the greatest playoff battles in NBA history.
Donovan Mitchell vs. Jamal Murray
Entering the 2020 postseason, Michael Jordan (in the 1988 first round) and Allen Iverson (in the 2001 second round) were the only players in NBA history to put up two 50-point games in a single playoff series.
After one round in the bubble, that number has doubled.
Mitchell got the party started with a 57-point Game 1 eruption that put him in third place on the all-time leaderboard for single-game postseason performances. Just over two weeks later, he and Murray hold four of the top 42 spots on that list.
Beyond the raw numbers, there was an electricity in this back-and-forth matchup that had to be seen live to believe.
As the Jazz staked out a 3-1 series lead, Mitchell seemed unstoppable. Every pull-up he dribbled into, whether from the mid-range or beyond the three-point line, seemed destined to drop. No one on the Nuggets could stay in front of him on drives.
In Game 5, when Utah had its first crack at ending the series, he had a statement dunk over Michael Porter Jr. that would've been a worthy exclamation point to his team's advancement.
Murray refused to leave Orlando, though. And big shot after big shot proved it.
In that same contest, he followed up a 50-point Game 4 with 42 more. In the fourth quarter alone, he had 16 on 7-of-8 shooting to go along with four assists. Denver still had plenty of ground to make up, but you could sense Murray's foot was in the door. He refused to be sent home.
In Game 6, both stars provided even more fireworks. Murray secured his second 50-point outing of the series. He had 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the fourth frame alone. Mitchell nearly matched him shot for shot, finishing with 44.
Through six games, the series was tied and felt like Rocky IV. Several of those shots should've been the knockout blow. Somehow, none were.
In Game 7, the script wrapped exactly how it should have. With both fighters drained, they shot a combined 37.2 percent from the field. Murray's supporting cast did a little more, and he emerged to move on to a second-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Even if these two never face off in another playoff series, they'll go down as either side of one of the greatest playoff duels in NBA history.
For the sake of basketball fans around the world, let's hope this is just the beginning of a rivalry that will develop into a legend like those that follow.
Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird
They weren't always matched up on the floor, but Larry Bird and Magic Johnson filled the lead roles during their 19 Finals games against each other.
If we judge the rivalry solely on wins and losses, Magic had the edge. He won two of the three series and held an 11-8 playoff record against Bird, but it's tough to fault the legendary Boston Celtic for that.
The individual numbers of both stars from those 19 games were absurd.
- Magic: 20.7 points, 13.5 assists, 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 0.4 blocks
- Bird: 25.3 points, 4.6 assists, 11.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 1.0 blocks
"Bird and Magic are the co-kings in the NBA," Los Angeles Laker Mychal Thompson said in 1987. "I guess you can call them salt and pepper because they sure do spice up this league."
For much of the 1980s, the league belonged to these two point forwards. Their rivalry and individual excellence fueled the expansion of the league and its influence.
Murray and Mitchell have a long way to go to compare to these legends, but they could take on a similar mantle.
Ratings have been a problem for the NBA, even during the reboot that followed months without sports. An electrifying individual rivalry helped solve this problem nearly 40 years ago. This series between Murray and Mitchell could be the start of something similar.
Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain
Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain may have been the NBA's first great superstar rivalry.
Wilt was the marvel who put up the gaudier individual numbers. Russell led the greatest team of the era to 11 NBA championships.
- Russell: 29 wins, 14.9 points, 24.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 41.7 field-goal percentage
- Wilt: 20 wins, 25.7 points, 28.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 50.8 field-goal percentage
Russell may have gotten the best of Wilt in terms of wins and losses, but there's a strong argument that he wouldn't have reached the level he did without his foil, as Bob Ryan wrote for NBA.com:
"For Wilt Chamberlain was every bit as gifted as his advocates believed. He would rewrite the NBA record book many times over. He would become the greatest individual force in the sport's history. And he would prod Bill Russell into playing some of his very best basketball. Absent Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell would have been great. But because of Wilt Chamberlain's terrifying presence, Bill Russell became, as the old Army ad said, all that he could be."
The epic first-round series between Murray and Mitchell brought a similar feel. Mitchell's 57 in Game 1 seemed to drive Murray to new heights. With each haymaker thrown, the guards seemed more determined to carry their teams to the next round.
LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
Among the highlights of the Golden State Warriors' dynasty was the back-to-back Finals series between LeBron James and Kevin Durant, arguably the two best players in the world at the time.
Often matched up with each other, the two all-time greats put up seemingly impossible numbers over those nine games:
- Durant: 32.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.9 blocks, 0.9 steals, 12.7 box plus/minus, 28.8 game score, 68.0 true shooting percentage
- LeBron: 33.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 1.0 blocks, 1.3 steals, 11.8 box plus/minus, 29.1 game score, 62.6 true shooting percentage
Durant was on a far more loaded roster. After joining a team that 73-9 in the preceding season, he went 8-1 against James' Cleveland Cavaliers in those two Finals.
When broken down to a one-on-one matchup, though, it's a lot tougher to declare which star was better.
The same can be said of Mitchell and Murray's first-round battle. The former scored a bit more, while the latter held the edges in rebounds, assists and wins.
It's impossible to definitively say who was better, even though the Nuggets and their superior supporting cast won the series.
If there aren't many future playoff matchups in the cards for Murray and Mitchell, they may well end up among these great battles:
Walt Frazier vs. Jerry West
These legendary guards met in the Finals three times. Frazier averaged 18.9 points, 8.2 assists and 7.5 rebounds while leading the New York Knicks to two titles. West went for 25.0 points, 7.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds in those 17 games.
Larry Bird vs. Bernard King
It took seven games, but Larry Bird led the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks in the 1984 Eastern Conference Semifinals with averages of 30.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.0 blocks.
Bernard King was the biggest reason for the struggle. He countered Bird with 29.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.1 steals, carrying a far less talented team further than most could've predicted.
Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins
Four years later, Bird matched up with the Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins for one of the most iconic duels in league history.
For the series, Bird averaged 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists. Wilkins went for 31.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
"Anything less than the transcendent fourth period that Larry Bird threw at Atlanta on Sunday, and all those Boston Celtics obituaries that had been set in type since October would have seen the light of day. However, Bird made nine of his 10 field-goal attempts in the final 12 minutes to lift Boston to a 118-116 victory..."
Larry Bird vs. Julius Erving
Sensing a theme here? Julius "Dr. J" Erving was another Eastern Conference star who got plenty of cracks against Bird. He went 12-12 in the playoffs against Bird and averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists against Bird's 22.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists.
Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
The legend of Michael Jordan may not have taken on the life it did without the adversity he faced from Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons.
Believe it or not, IT has a winning record (12-10) against the GOAT in playoff games.
Michael Jordan vs. the 1990s
Much like Bird in the 1980s, the following decade was loaded with playoff battles against one superstar. Jordan topped Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, Reggie Miller and Karl Malone, just to name a few.
Vince Carter vs. Allen Iverson
In the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals, two of the league's most dynamic offensive stars put on a show.
AI went for 33.7 points, 6.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 3.1 steals. Carter averaged 30.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.6 steals, 2.0 blocks and 1.9 steals.
Gilbert Arenas vs. LeBron James
In a battle that enlisted the help of Soulja Boy, prime Gilbert Arenas gave LeBron James all he and the Cleveland Cavaliers could handle during the first round of the 2006 Eastern Conference playoffs.
Agent Zero averaged 34.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.2 steals, but his Washington Wizards fell to LeBron and his 35.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
Dirk Nowitzki vs. Tim Duncan
These two Western Conference mainstays faced each other 33 times in the playoffs, with Tim Duncan winning 18 of those games. The highlight of the rivalry may have come during the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals.
In that seven-game series, Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to victory with 27.1 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists. And Duncan might've been even better. He put up 32.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.0 steals.
Dirk Nowitzki vs. Dwyane Wade
They weren't matched up much, but Dirk and Dwyane Wade's teams faced each other twice in the Finals during the 2000s.
After Wade led the Miami Heat to a Finals win in 2006 with 73 free-throw attempts over the last four games, Dirk got his revenge in 2011.
Carmelo Anthony vs. Kobe Bryant
Two of the greatest volume scorers of all time put on an offensive clinic in the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers topped the Denver Nuggets in six games behind Kobe Bryant's 34.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
Carmelo Anthony didn't make it easy, though. He put up 27.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists.