The exultant look on Donovan Mitchell’s face expressed everything anybody needed to know about what happened in Game 6 at Vivint Arena on Friday night.
Victory happened. Happiness happened. Satisfaction happened. Relief happened. All to the benefit of the Jazz, who scored 96 points.
And if there was anything left untold, the troubled look on Russell Westbrook’s face covered the rest.
Defeat happened. Disappointment happened. Elimination happened. All at the expense of the Thunder, who scored 91.
As evidence of the unstable, unpredictable, downright fickle nature of a best-of-seven playoff series, and the way it can pivot quicker than you can explain the rudiments of a 5-out motion offense, the feel of the sixth game here was quite different from what went on in Game 5.
Which is to say, the Jazz turned from a team that blew a 25-point lead, allowing itself to get swamped by the sizable wake kicked up by the USS Thunder, into a buoyant team that would not get sunk, even through its own sloppy play and regardless of what OKC did.
The positive vibe and warm encouragement of a building full of raucous Jazz fans hurt not one bit.
Handling nerves, another step in the Jazz’s ongoing playoff progression, was done in adequate measure, but, at times, it was rough. There were spans of possessions that revealed the increased push and pull of the postseason, and their effects on a group of players still learning about such circumstances. But if any lingering hangover from the Jazz’s choke at the Chesapeake came into play, the Thunder suffered in the here and now some of the same malady.
The Jazz did start slow, shooting 38 percent in the first quarter, laboring on their heaves, especially from beyond the arc, where they made 28 percent. The Thunder were just barely better.
It got worse for the Jazz, their accuracy dropping lower and lower through the first half — until they made a flurry of shots just before the break. The fact that they were tied with the Thunder at 41 at that juncture was … remarkable.
In the second half, the Jazz gathered themselves. In addition to their rugged defensive effort, they at last found some accuracy. Mitchell showed his leadership — and his skill — by shoving the Jazz forward, hitting shot after shot, ending up with 38 points. Through the third quarter, the rookie nearly singlehandedly gave Utah a five-point lead, a 10-point lead … and … at a number of points, as Mitchell shot free throws and after the game, the crowd chanted, “MVP … MVP … MVP.”
That actually happened.
Guys like Joe Ingles, Gobert, Derrick Favors, Royce O’Neale and Alec Burks pitched in.
This time, there was no meltdown.
Collectively the Jazz were able to … what’s the best word? … contain … no, that’s not quite it … Russell Westbrook, who scored 46 points. If anything had been demonstrated through this series, it was that the only real way the Thunder could win here is if their individual talent trumped the Jazz’s teamwork.
That’s what occurred in Games 1 and 5, and the script was altered in Games 2, 3, 4 and, finally, in Game 6.
The knockout punches came when the Jazz alternately handed the ball to Mitchell and kept the ball popping at the offensive end. As they concurrently reconnected that defense, with Gobert firmly in the middle against the Thunder’s stars.
Still, Westbrook is incredible.
With the dark prospects of facing a Game 7 back in OKC hovering overhead, the Jazz stuck with their plans, the same designs that had served them so well over the past three months. And that methodology, that strategy did not abandon them as they honored it, when they needed it the most — in a closeout game against a quality opponent.
The Thunder — apologies here — were never as done as they appeared after the first four-and-a-half games.
Afterward, the Jazz were jubilant, as they most certainly should have been, crowning a season of surprise with the kind of advancement — toward the waiting Houston Rockets — that seemed impossible in the doldrums of December and the wicked winds of January.
But there Donovan Mitchell was, alongside his teammates, smiling, eyes aglow, celebrating a playoff series win with 18,000 of his best friends, hosting a party that cemented 2017-18 as a year that set a foundation of promise — and new levels of expectation and pressure, too — for seasons to come.
All of that is true, no matter what happens next.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.