Jazz guard Deron Williams hit a step-back jumper in the lane to break a tie then the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant missed a winning 3-point attempt at the buzzer and the Jazz celebrated a victory in Game 3 of a 2009 first-round playoff series.
A determined Bryant scorched the Jazz with 38 points in a convincing win in Salt Lake City two nights later. The Jazz would face four more elite teams in the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs over the next nine years before doing what they did Wednesday in Houston: They beat a No. 1 seed in a postseason game.
The Jazz’s 116-108 victory in Game 2 of the West semifinals ended a 15-game playoff losing streak against top-seeded teams, and there’s a modern-day angle. Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell was 12 years old then, but he recently has studied Bryant’s Game 4 performance “over and over again,” Mitchell said this week.
Mitchell can recite how Bryant scored the Lakers’ first 11 points in that game. So he knows what the Rockets’ James Harden will be trying to do in Friday’s Game 3 at Vivint Smart Home Arena after failing in Wednesday’s fourth quarter. Mitchell also is learning from Bryant’s career about how to play his best basketball in the biggest moments.
By reviewing Game 4 of that 2009 series, Mitchell witnessed “the way he responded after losing Game 3,” he said. “That mentality is one I’ve been trying to get in myself, just to take over any way that I can.”
Mitchell succeeded in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, not necessarily in the traditional Kobe style. Mitchell had seven assists as of the 7:50 mark of the second quarter as the Jazz’s starting point guard in Ricky Rubio’s absence. He remained stuck on seven almost exactly two quarters later.
In the first half, “Staying poised allowed me to be able to make those passes and those reads,” he said. “The second half, I got away from it, but then I tried to get right back into it.”
Mitchell’s passing changed the game. He fed Dante Exum for a 3-pointer with the Jazz trailing by two points. Then came his passes to Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles (twice) for three more 3s. Mitchell’s four assists spurred a 16-2 run that also featured his spectacular one-handed rebound and dunk of his own missed shot. The Jazz’s offensive burst, mixed with defensive toughness, gave them a 108-96 lead.
Mitchell was imperfect in the fourth quarter, going 3 of 10 from the field (missing three 3-point tries), but his passing and rebounding helped the Jazz secure a monumental win. He finished 6 of 21, yet the Jazz outscored Houston by 13 points with him on the court amid some foul trouble.
Williams, Devin Harris, George Hill and Shelvin Mack were the Jazz’s starting point guards in those other losses to No. 1 seeds, and now Mitchell is 1-1 in that position.
One key point: An assist requires a made shot. Mitchell’s eighth assist could have come earlier in the fourth quarter, but Royce O’Neale missed an open 3-pointer. Exum, Crowder and Ingles came through with big shots, just as Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur did in a first-round Game 7 in Houston in 2007.
Wednesday’s Game 2 had the look and feel of that contest as the Jazz built a big lead, lost it and got it back. The fourth-quarter response “says a lot about the team and how they function together. ... They didn’t break at that point,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
The difference between ’07 and now is this series continues after the Jazz’s road breakthrough. Going into the series, Games 3 and 4 at Vivint were framed mostly as the Jazz’s opportunity to get one win and avoid a fourth straight sweep by a No. 1 seed in this decade. Now, though, it gets interesting.
The Jazz restored a long-missing aura of dominance on their home court by winning all three games against Oklahoma City in the first round after a Game 2 road victory. Houston presents a next-level test, with Harden as the NBA’s 2018 equivalent of Bryant.
The Jazz had lost 15 consecutive playoff games to No. 1 seeds before Wednesday’s Game 2 win over Houston, starting with Game 4 of a 2009 series vs. the Los Angeles Lakers.
2009 first round • Lakers win 108-94 and 107-96
2010 second round • Lakers win 104-99, 111-103, 111-110 and 111-96
2012 first round • San Antonio wins 106-91, 114-83, 102-90 and 87-81
2017 second round • Golden State wins 106-94, 115-104, 102-91 and 121-95
2018 second round • Houston wins 110-96