It wasn’t quite an expression of complete devastation that creased Donovan Mitchell’s face as he left the floor late Saturday night, his team having lost to the Rockets by the count of 104-101. It was fractional devastation, about three-quarter’s worth, as the Jazz tasted defeat for the third time in this first-to-four playoff series.
In the previous two defeats, absorbed by a total of 52 points, no Jazz player had taken more responsibility upon himself for the sorry results than Mitchell. His descriptions of his own play had bordered on self-flagellation. To no one’s surprise, the 22-year-old had ducked nothing, had taken on everything, including much of the blame for the Jazz’s backward showings.
It was more of the same, but different, on Saturday night at Vivint Arena, as the Jazz now face elimination in Game 4.
The Jazz played better, but at no enduring time in this series have circumstances leaned the way Mitchell had envisioned them before this whole affair started. Remember that? Back when he and Rudy Gobert whispered about their intentions to win a championship? That there was nothing preposterous about such an aim?
Well. Preposterous is exactly what all of that seems.
Floating on a raft in the Mediterranean is the Jazz’s short-term destiny now.
And Mitchell is bummed, big time.
There was some satisfaction in him looking more like himself on this night. He drove hard to the basket, spinning and weaving through Rocket traffic, stopping and popping, firing from deep, dropping dimes out of trouble, the whole Mitchell repertoire.
He shot the ball, though, with only a bit more precision, scoring 34 points. It was a slight difference from the utterly shoddy shooting Mitchell had put up heretofore.
It had gotten to the point where observers were wondering whether too much was being asked of Mitchell, either by design or out of desperation on account of the fact that the Jazz had no other options at the offensive end. Even as Houston’s defense was building a wall around Mitchell, the Jazz gave the ball to him and relied on his athleticism to do … something, anything, because who else could?
That’s the burden Mitchell had successfully carried all season long.
Questioned about it, whether too much is asked, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey responded thusly:
“Maybe. That’s a legitimate question. And here’s the irony to me answering that the way it is: Hopefully, we can build him in such a way that maybe there’s more in the offering. Donovan’s got to do some things to be more efficient. How do you go through that? By facing real tests. He’s done amazing his first two years. … He’s our guy. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue to build him, build his teammates, and augment with more and different talent going forward.
“This is hard. And it’s going to get harder. That’s where he and us collectively need to be better. You can’t run from the challenge. The struggle is real. So, let’s set our jaw and fight back.”
Mitchell fought back in defeat on Saturday night.
Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, Kyle Korver and Mitchell, too, said beforehand that the Jazz weren’t really the Jazz in the first two games, that the lot of them had been kidnapped by aliens and subbed with clumsy replicants.
OK, that last part is a lie. They didn’t quite say that, but they might as well have. People would have believed them.
On this occasion, though, for the first time in these playoffs, Donovan Mitchell was Donovan Mitchell again, the Jazz were almost the Jazz. Wait, maybe this really is who they are, at least against this kind of playoff competition, even on a night when James Harden was not James Harden, making just three field goals.
That realization, that actualization, was evident on Mitchell’s face as he left the floor at the end. And, with Game 4 coming on Monday night, those pieces of devastation were creased deeper by the work, by the burden, still ahead.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.