The stroke of midnight was near and the final bits of Utah Jazz fans slowly shuffled their way Saturday night out of Vivint Smart Home Arena. Some young fans, sporting their oversized red, orange and yellow T-shirts, cried. Others, still dazed by the reality that their team now faces a 3-0 deficit in the first round of the NBA playoffs, could only bite down on their special edition postseason shirts as they made their frustrating walk back to their cars, back home, knowing full well this season is very much on the brink.
Outside of the Jazz locker room, Donovan Mitchell’s mom and sister stopped at the new playoff banner that lines the concrete walls toward the entrance to the floor and took selfies in front of his photo, proud of his bounce-back performance. Beyond the glass double-doors, however, Mitchell later sat slumped in a chair in front of his locker, despondent, for moments just staring down at the carpet. Mitchell finally awoke for Game 3, had a game-high 34 points, but after a sizzling start, cooled significantly, and like most Jazz players Saturday night, missed several wide-open 3s.
His last, where he found himself comfortably open with less than 10 seconds remaining, hit iron instead of twine. It would’ve tied the game. The Jazz, bullied by the Houston Rockets in the first two outings of this series in Texas, finally pushed back Saturday night at home in front of an ear-splitting crowd. But despite holding James Harden to 3-of-20 shooting — the reigning MVP astoundingly didn’t score a field goal until midway through the fourth quarter — Utah remains winless in the series.
“I don’t think they felt us the first two games,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “We should play that way every night.”
Demoralizing is about the best and only way to describe the scene afterward, because even now, beyond facing a deficit that’s never been overcome in the history of the NBA playoffs, the Jazz were themselves once more Saturday. They weren’t scrambling, weren’t overthinking; they bossed portions of the game. It wasn’t enough, though. And now, they have to find a way to bury thoughts that are impossible to bury, knowing a 50-win year, a No. 5 seed earned in the vaunted Western Conference, another building block to where this team wanted to rise toward, is suddenly near the end.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to just lay over Monday,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case. ... Yeah, you could say no team’s come back from 3-0, but no team could come back from 3-1 and that happened. That’s where our mindset’s at. It’s an uphill battle. [We’re] not just going to lay over and just give them a game. That’s not who we are, that’s not who any of us are.”
As fans filed out after the Game 3 loss, their conversations were similar to players’ postgame talks with the media in the locker room: a few more open 3’s made, better free-throw shooting, the Jazz presumably handling Game 3. The Jazz are 27 of 106 from 3 in this series and were 12 of 41 Saturday. That’s 11 percentage points (25 percent) below their season average of 36 from deep.
“This is it — it’s win or go home,” said Jazz forward Kyle Korver. “I think leave it all out there, keep on trying what we did [Saturday] and hopefully make more shots.”
Game 3 was Utah’s shot at wiggling its way back into this thing. It was a chance to prove to the Rockets, to the fans, and yes, even to themselves, that the Jazz could resemble the team that for the second year in a row, stormed its way through the second half of the regular season and looked like a team that could make even more noise. Now, a third consecutive first-round playoff series win doesn’t seem part of the equation. Instead, the Jazz have only one guarantee left, one game left.
One game to show up again, to try and play with as much determination and grit and spirit as Game 3, but to walk off the floor inside Vivint Smart Home Arena showered in confetti instead of congratulating the Rockets for the second time in as many postseasons.
“That means we’ve got to go attack Game 4,” said forward Georges Niang.
“That’s all it’s about,” forward Jae Crowder added. “You can’t look at games already played; obviously, you move forward. That’s what the playoffs is about, moving forward.”
What is forward for this Jazz team now? The answer might seem a little existential. The answer is Monday night, where they have no choice but to lace up, to show up, to give the crowd more reasons to go nuts, and hope there’s a charter flight on the team itinerary that leads them back to Houston for a fifth game.
JAZZ VS. ROCKETS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Monday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • TNT, AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Series • Rockets lead 3-0
Last meeting • Rockets, 104-101 (Saturday)
About the Jazz • Utah has struggled from the perimeter all series long, having made just 27 of 106 shots from 3-point range (25.5%). … After his 34-point outing Saturday, Donovan Mitchell is averaging 21.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists, but is shooting just 32.8% from the field and 29.6% from deep. … As a team, the Jazz are averaging just 96.3 ppg this series, and shooting just 40.1% from the field.
About the Rockets • MVP candidate James Harden is averaging 27.7 points, 10.0 assists, 8,3 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game, but after Saturday’s 3-for-20 effort, is shooting just 35.7% from the field and 33.3% from deep. … Houston is averaging 114.7 ppg on 45.6% shooting. … The Rockets’ defense has produced 8.3 steals per game in the series.