As Donovan Mitchell fouled out with 52 seconds left, he got warm pats on the back from teammates, as well as a respectful ovation from the crowd.
Quin Snyder couldn’t be happy — not as the Jazz were going down 1-3 in the series with the Rockets — but he was proud of his rookie guard for fighting to the end.
“After that last game [Game 3], Donovan had the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Snyder said. “I could not be more satisfied with the way that he responded from his game the other night, and it didn’t come easy.”
At least in terms of expectations, some of that weight will be lessened going forward.
The Rockets are on the verge of clinching a berth to the Western Conference Finals, and a Jazz comeback — based on the results of the first four games — seems nearly unthinkable.
It comes down to Tuesday night, when the Rockets will have the benefit of home court advantage and mountains of motivation to defy their stars’ reputations as playoff pushovers. The Jazz have to overcome all that to stave off elimination in Game 5, then win two more games to advance themselves. It’s happened before only 11 times in NBA history.
What’s troubling for the Jazz is there’s no one way Houston has beaten them: In Game 1, Utah looked underprepared after a short turnaround from the first-round series. In Game 3, the Jazz defense was thoroughly overwhelmed by brisk Rockets shooting and execution. In Game 4, they shored up on defense, but were knotted up by Houston’s switching scheme and ability to contest, especially at the rim.
JAZZ AT ROCKETS
At the Toyota Center, Houston
Tipoff • Tuesday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • TNT
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Series • Rockets lead, 3-1
Last meeting • Rockets 100, Jazz 87
About the Rockets • Chris Paul is coming off his first double-double of the series after scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in Game 4. … The Rockets recorded 11 steals on Sunday night, which is the third game in the series that Houston has enjoyed double-digit steals. … The Rockets have hit at least 10 3-pointers in the team’s last 15 postseason games, which is an NBA playoff record.
About the Jazz • Donovan Mitchell is averaging 24.4 points per game in the postseason and has scored at least 20 points in eight of his 10 playoff games. … The Jazz are hoping for positive health updates on Ricky Rubio, who has missed four straight games with a hamstring injury, and Dante Exum, who left Game 4 with a strained hamstring. … After scoring 116 points in Game 2, the Jazz have failed to reach 100 points in back-to-back games while shooting under 42 percent in both contests.
The one victory the Jazz have gotten saw them play near-perfect basketball: Mitchell and Joe Ingles had career marks in assists and points, respectively, and Dante Exum spearheaded the defensive effort against James Harden, who was also limited by foul trouble. Utah has only one proven winning path, while the Rockets — powered by Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela, along with a seemingly interchangeable cast of gritty 3-and-D players — seem to have several avenues.
“Houston is that good,” Snyder said after Game 4. “Give them credit. They know how to control a game. In spite of that, we just hung in there, took shots, kept coming and kept coming. Just couldn’t get over the hill.”
A defining trait of the series has been how many Jazz players are being asked to perform well outside their established roles.
In the absence of Ricky Rubio, sidelined with a hamstring injury, Mitchell has been asked to be both primary scorer and primary distributor, which has at times hurt his decisiveness on offense. Rudy Gobert has been asked to defend paint penetration against two of the best midrange shooters in the NBA, but still must keep an eye in the back of his head for Capela, who is enjoying a breakout postseason in a breakout year. Ingles, Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder are being asked to be more potent scoring threats than they were in the regular season while trying to stay ahead of Harden, whom virtually no one has figured out how to stop.
Over the course of the series, Snyder has readily acknowledged that each of those roles is probably too much to ask of the players who have to fill them. But there are no other options, save to raise a white flag.
Gobert was asked about his Game 4 performance, when the Jazz were outscored by 27 with him on the floor. He had no deep insight: He was just trying to play.
“Sometimes you’re minus-27, sometimes you’re plus-27,” he said. “I just try to keep playing and try to help my team win the game.”
There are limited variables that seem to offer Utah a chance to make the series interesting. Unfortunately for the Jazz, two of those variables were eliminated on Monday night, when the team reported that both Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum would miss Game 5 with hamstring injuries. It makes the team perilously thin at point guard, and burdens Mitchell and backup Raul Neto even more than when the series started.
The other questions are more speculative: Could the Rockets have another off night? Might they start missing the challenging midrange shots the Jazz have forced them into? Might they not play with the same defensive intensity and communication they have in the last two games?
The answers to those questions are largely out of Utah’s control. But unfortunately for the Jazz, so is the series — at least this far.