This daze was different.
It was not one of dejection like Saturday night. No, this was one of astonishment. Donovan Mitchell plopped down in his chair inside the Jazz locker room after landing Utah’s first honest haymaker of this series and tried to catch his breath. He wasn’t smiling, he was just there, still trying to process what he’d just done, blowing the roof off the place. What he’d done is give the Jazz life, provide an atmosphere where rather than discuss the fallout of being swept and whether or not this group would be back together again for another ride, the vibe was at once both delighted and reserved.
Joe Ingles did a FaceTime chat with his wife and kids, currently back home in Australia, and wiggled through the media horde to let them say hi to Ricky Rubio. Kyle Korver sat in his chair, unwrapped the ice from his knees and said that might’ve been the loudest crowd he’s ever heard in his 16 years in the NBA.
It took four games, but the Jazz now have a say. They have one in the win column. They were not swept. And now they’re back in Houston, looking for a way to bottle up the fearlessness they exuded in the 107-91 Game 4 win Monday night and find any means to inject it into another elimination game Wednesday night.
“It feels good,” said forward Georges Niang, “but we’ve got one more game three more times.”
Backed into a corner, the Jazz responded. Most importantly perhaps, there is a sliver of momentum in this series now that’s finally swayed in their favor. Their defense has tightened and their ball movement has improved. Their 3-point shooting still left something to be desired, but Monday was a blueprint for what lies ahead. Ingles said Utah still can and must be better from distance in order to be in the game late Wednesday night in Houston.
“We realized we can play better, guys can make more shots,” Ingles said. “We’re getting open looks and once we start knocking them down, it takes a bit of pressure off the defense. We know who we are.”
The Jazz saw the Rockets make 17 3s in the first three quarters — including eight in the third quarter alone — but were right there trailing by three points entering the fourth. Mitchell’s highlight-reel start to the final period led the Jazz back from the brink. Utah outscored the Rockets 31-12 in that last quarter. The Jazz dominated for the first time in this series. Coach Quin Snyder rolled with a lineup that got them there, too, eventually closing out the game with Rudy Gobert and Ingles on the bench.
“That’s the definition of a team, when you put the group in front of yourself,” Snyder said. “We have a lot of guys who are willing to do that.”
This is a resolute group, which now awaits Houston’s best counterpunch. But even to be in this position, Ingles said, speaks to the team’s ability to rally, to not get swept on their home floor, to make the Rockets know the Jazz are very much capable of making this a series worth watching instead of switching the channel. The offseason plans were never part of the equation. Not this week.
“If we were thinking about going home or not getting swept, I think it could happen,” Ingles said. “You don’t want to have your mind in the wrong spot. Our guys were so locked in these last 48 hours from [Saturday’s] game. I think it’s very easy to go down that path of thinking of that or booking this or doing that.”
Korver found his own way of motivating himself and his team from within. When he saw Rubio wearing a sweatshirt with the point guard’s “never too high, never too low” motto, Korver knew he needed one for himself. So he got one and wore it to Game 4 Monday. It’s indicative of where the Jazz must continue to reside.
“I might wear it the rest of the playoffs,” he said.
Might as well. The Jazz must play like they have everything to lose, just like Monday night, where they ensured their season wouldn’t end inside Vivint Smart Home Arena. That much was evident when Jae Crowder ripped a ball away from James Harden and went on to score a tough layup and get fouled in the process. He pointed to his chest and screamed to the Jazz faithful, “I got heart.” Korver said the win is the start of a foundation the team can build upon in this series.
“But we’ve only won one game,” he said. “Our goal was not to just to not get swept. We have higher aspirations than that.”
“I think you just have to come live in the moment and stay focused,” he said. “We’ve done that all year with the season, with games, quarters, and we’re not going to stop doing it now. We’ll lock in.”
Before making his way into the locker room to try and unwind, Mitchell was out on the court, and was asked about the win and moving forward. Yes, the Jazz are still in a sizable hole down 3-1, but they’re still going and, right now, that’s really all that matters.
“It’s not over,” Mitchell said.
JAZZ VS. ROCKETS
At the Toyota Center, Houston
Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • TNT, AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Series • Rockets lead 3-1
Last meeting • Jazz won 107-91 (Monday)
About the Jazz • After making 27 3s in the first three games of the series, Utah responded by making 11 in the Game 4 win. ... Donovan Mitchell led all scorers Monday with 31 including 19 in the fourth quarter. ... Jae Crowder had 23 points in his second start of the series. ... The Jazz won Game 2 of last year’s Western Conference semifinals in Houston.
About the Rockets • Houston hit 17 3-pointers through three quarters Monday, but missed the final 13 attempts they took in the fourth quarter. ... ESPN reported center Clint Capela has been dealing with two respiratory illnesses during the series. ... The Rockets were out-rebounded 52-35 by the Jazz Monday night.