Of all the sentiments expressed deep in the emotion and competitive pain of Jazz players after their season slammed into a brick wall on Tuesday night, two sentences screamed optimism for the team’s future.
Rudy Gobert said: “We started something, now we have to finish it.”
Donovan Mitchell said: “We’re just scratching the surface.”
They said other things, too, but those short word illustrations are significant for the Jazz’s outlook, their promise and, most importantly, their determination.
Mitchell noted his own hard work, work that was more than evident in the way he performed this past season, but that also was blown completely into a whole new realm in the seven games of the playoffs.
If it’s necessary to have an elite star on the roster in order to do what the Jazz have publicly proclaimed as their goal … no, as their intention, from owner Gail Miller to VP Dennis Lindsey to Mitchell and Gobert, they’ve got one.
That is the hardest part.
Mitchell is that guy.
Nobody — other than Donovan himself — was completely sure about that until recently, and by recently, I mean the last couple of weeks. But, oh, what a couple of weeks Mitchell had. Not only did he take a strong stand on so many issues outside of basketball, he stood as a grown man inside of it, too, signifying that his maturation, even at 23 years old, is arriving fast.
Everybody saw him collapse at the end on Tuesday night, hitting the floor — “I didn’t know what else to do,” he said — after giving as much in a playoff series as anyone ever has. He might not have carried the entirety of his team’s offense, but he pushed and pulled most of it, scoring 57 points, 30 points, 20 points, 51 points, 30 points, 44 points, 22 points.
Point is, he’s doing his part, filling that role.
The Jazz’s best player is getting better.
And he promised to continue to be diligent in flying higher moving forward.
He needs help.
That’s where Gobert and others come in.
As the Jazz’s other star, a star who is eligible for and coming up on a contract negotiation that could include him seeking a super-max deal, Gobert has to improve, as well. What he’ll be worth, how much better he can get is up for debate. His defensive prowess is well-known, but remember that Nikola Jokic had 30 important points in Game 7, and that was Gobert’s primary assignment, to stop Jokic. He did not. Where were the closeouts?
He also was neck-deep in attempting to limit the rest of the Nuggets when they got past their primary defender. So, the task was major. Gobert also had 19 points and 18 rebounds. Can he conjure that kind of effort, that kind of effect on offense, on the boards every night? Can he develop a presence on attack where when an opposing defender is between him and the basket he scores anyway?
The Jazz’s best chances for ascent lie inside the improvement of the two stars. Mitchell has answered that and will go on answering. What about Gobert, who is four years older?
Other Jazz players underperformed in the back-half of the Denver series. Can they improve or can the Jazz get their hands on a gifted perimeter defender who at the same time will not wholly penalize them on the other end?
Maybe even Lindsey doesn’t know what exact path to take, what path he can take, and if he does, how to take it.
Either way, it should center on that perimeter defense or on getting a more effective rebounder, or both in one, to add to the mix.
Bottom line is, Mitchell and Gobert, even in their exhausted, defeated moment, lifted their heads, focusing more on what comes next than crying over what had just passed. And it would have been easy to cry, considering they blew a 3-1 series lead.
They will set the tone for whatever it will be, finishing what they started, scratching beyond the surface. And reports that Mitchell is on the brink of signing a new deal that in addition to his remaining year will mean the Jazz will have him for at least another three years beyond that is putting both his money and his intention where his mouth is.
Keep that close on colder nights as the offseason commences.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.