After what he did Friday night, Donovan Mitchell deserved an encore.
He got it, with 6.9 seconds left, at the free throw line. As he had all night, he made the shots.
It was the moment the crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena realized the Utah Jazz were going to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals without their starting point guard, coming off a brutal Game 5 loss, and with a rookie — albeit a sensational one — leading the way.
In the end, it was the Jazz — playing nearly seven-eighths of the game without Ricky Rubio — who were able to finish the job with a gritty 96-91 win over the star-laden Thunder and clinch the series, 4-2.
Mitchell, at the center of the win with a 38 points, took center stage in the celebration as well. He pumped his fist as confetti spewed across the court, and gave a rollicking hug to Rubio.
Take a minute to process this information: The team with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is going home for the Western Conference semifinals. The Jazz, who were 19-28 in January, advance to take on the top-seeded Houston Rockets.
Coach Quin Snyder, with a much more formal composure than the victory called for, was asked what he learned about his team throughout the series.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “I think other people are finding out what we know.”
Even on the last meaningful Thunder possession of the game, the Jazz made it hard on themselves: They had to make six stops instead of one. Oklahoma City managed four offensive rebounds, then got an out-of-bounds call go their way before Paul George’s missed 3-pointer was rebounded by Mitchell.
“It seemed like we were on defense for a long time,” Snyder said of the Thunder possession, which lasted 39 seconds with two Oklahoma City timeouts thrown in. “As a coach in practice, you make your team play defense five straight possessions and try to get to not break. [In the game] our guys didn’t break.”
It wasn’t a tale of two halves — in fact, forget the first half. In the second, the unbelievable scoring prowess of Mitchell and Westbrook (46 points) took center stage, authoring a classic with 59 second-half points.
The only thing more impossible than their shots was looking away.
It was Mitchell who rocketed out at the start, scoring the first 10 points of the period to give the Jazz the edge out of a 41-all halftime.
In all, Mitchell made 10 shots in a row — even the ones that bounced or rolled along the rim found their way into the net, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy. He had 22 points in the third quarter alone, the best mark for a Jazz player this season.
How did he come out blazing into the third quarter? Mitchell said Snyder spoke it into existence.
“Coach Quin called that, the whole thing,” Mitchell said. “The first half, I was hesitant — kind of nervous, to be honest with you. He came up to me after one of the timeouts and the half ended, and he said, ‘We’re gonna win this game and you’re gonna go off.’ Word for word, that’s what he said.
“And when you have a coach telling you that,” Mitchell added, “your mindset is like, ‘OK, maybe you don’t need to be nervous.’”
But Westbrook wasn’t far behind, scoring 20 points including four 3-pointers on 7 for 14 shooting. He even charged Gobert at the rim — something he hasn’t done much of in the series.
When it looked like the Jazz might begin to pull away, Westbrook brought the Thunder to life. For all 24 minutes of the second half, there wasn’t a single one without the tension of an Oklahoma City comeback, fresh off the one they manufactured in Game 5.
Sure enough, the Thunder made it interesting. From a game-high lead of 13, the Jazz’s lead was down to one point late in the game. The difference turned out to be a Mitchell layup at the 2:26 mark, and Derrick Favors spaced the lead to three with 1:08 remaining. The Thunder didn’t score again.
It wasn’t just Mitchell scoring everything: Several Jazz guards stepped up in Rubio’s absence. Alec Burks (11 points) had some key buckets, especially in a fourth-quarter stint when Mitchell was saddled to the bench with five fouls. Royce O’Neale was played fearsome defensive possessions before breaking away in transition.
Joe Ingles played all 24 minutes in the second half, totaling 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists while defending George, who had five points on 2 for 16 shooting.
“We used that last Game 5 to look back in the timeouts, just look at each other,” Ingles said. “We’ve been in this situation before: We know what not to do. We were great at just staying composed and sticking together.”
From the 4:52 mark of the first quarter, the Jazz had to play with a hand tied behind its back: Rubio subbed out with a left hamstring injury — the same hamstring which kept him sidelined in several games toward the end of the season. No sooner had he gone to the locker room than the Jazz announced he was out for the game.
Initially, that meant chaos for the Jazz on offense. Utah coughed up nine turnovers (Mitchell with four) after Rubio subbed out, as no clear ball-handler emerged. The Jazz scored 30 points for the rest of the first half — even their shots looked hurried.
On defense, Gobert helped neutralize the advantage. After eclipsing 30 points in three previous games in the series, George was mostly a non-factor on offense in the first three quarters, missing 10 of his first 12 shots. The Jazz held the Thunder to 41 percent shooting from the field in the first half, and Mitchell tied it up at 41 with a layup on the last Jazz shot before the intermission.
It’s the second straight Western Conference Semifinals for the Jazz, who were swept by the Warriors last season. They face the Rockets in a series starting Sunday — in the regular season, the Jazz were 0 for 4 against Houston.
But in the late hours of Friday night, that series felt weeks away. Friday night was for celebration on the heels of an exhausting, physical series. Again, the Jazz defied the odds.
“It took everything,” Mitchell said. “We worked hard. We stuck with it.”