Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell trudged toward the bench after fouling out in the last minute Sunday night as thousands of fans stood and applauded him.
Other fans were standing because they already were walking up the aisles of Vivint Smart Home Arena, never turning around. And when Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals vs. Houston ended and the Jazz players exited through the tunnel, not much cheering could be heard.
That surprised me. Maybe fans were confident the Jazz would return Thursday for Game 6, disgusted with the officials’ treatment of Houston’s stars or just worn out. In any case, reality suggests this was the home crowd’s last chance to show appreciation for a team that deserved a proper sendoff into the summer, and it didn’t really happen.
This is how it ends, I guess. As Mitchell famously told an Oklahoma City fan after Game 5, before the Jazz would conclude the first-round series at home, “We’ll see y’all next year.”
Even assuming the Jazz will lose Tuesday in Houston, this season will remain memorable. This team became the most beloved Jazz group since the NBA Finals era. The issue of whether this ranks as the Jazz’s best playoff showing in those 20 years is debatable, with the absence of Ricky Rubio in this series playing into the discussion.
Just once, maybe the Jazz can play a second-round series with a healthy point guard, after George Hill missed the final three games vs. Golden State last May and Rubio has not appeared in this series with a hamstring injury.
I’m still saying that taking the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the West semis (almost forcing overtime in Game 6) distinguishes the 2008 team as the franchise’s best postseason performer in the past 20 years, although the latest effort comes close. All the current team needed to do to overtake the ’08 showing was follow the Game 2 win in Houston with two competitive games in Salt Lake City. The Jazz’s falling behind by 30 points at halftime of Game 3 is a stain that’s tough to erase, even if they battled to the end of a 100-87 defeat Sunday.
With a loss Tuesday, the Jazz would fall to 1-12 in the West semis in this decade. The consolation is twofold: The one victory is meaningful, and the franchise’s outlook is much more encouraging than it was after the Lakers’ sweep in 2010 and the Warriors’ blanking last season. Everybody knew 2010 marked the end of an era with Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and other players departing and, as we know now, Gordon Hayward was gone after last year.
Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the Jazz’s current core players are here to stay, and they produced a season that looks and feels like the start of something significant.
The Oklahoma City series produced four meaningful wins, starting with the Jazz’s Game 2 road breakthrough built around their defense as the Thunder’s Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony failed to make a basket in the fourth quarter. Then came three home victories as the crowd helped the Jazz restore a home-court aura that had been missing.
Game 6 is indelible, because of the way the Jazz started wobbly after blowing a 25-point lead in Game 5 and losing Rubio in the first quarter. But then Mitchell went crazy with 22 points in the third quarter and the Jazz withstood OKC’s rally in the end.
Game 2 in Houston seems even more stunning, looking back, after what happened in Salt Lake City. The Jazz scored 64 points in the first half, before losing their 18-point lead early in the third quarter. Yet they responded during a brilliant fourth-quarter sequence, when Mitchell fed Dante Exum, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles (twice) for 3-pointers and dunked his own rebound. Mitchell had a hand in 15 points during the Jazz’s decisive 16-2 run.
All of this stuff came as a bonus, after the Jazz appeared unlikely to make the playoffs at various checkpoints. They made something of this season, with the promise of more to come. The Jazz should have been celebrated Sunday, amid the disappointment of another defeat.