Houston • Sure, there is the disappointment of their season ending Tuesday at the hands of the Houston Rockets.
Sure, a 112-102 loss at the Toyota Center clinched a hotly contested Western Conference semifinal series for a talented Rockets team in five games. Sure, the Jazz were a victim to one of the finest performances of Chris Paul’s career, as the star guard took over to the tune of 41 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
But surely, there was little dejection for Utah when looking at the big picture.
With one brilliant playoff run to cap a furious 35-game stretch to end the regular season, the Jazz established themselves as one of the NBA’s teams of the future. Donovan Mitchell, who scored 22 of his 24 points in a sensational third quarter, has set himself up for superstardom. Rudy Gobert regained his mojo, dominating inside. With a young core and two franchise pieces, the Jazz figure to be relevant on the NBA’s landscape for years to come.
“We feel like this is the beginning of a new era,” Utah forward Jae Crowder said.
“They are unbelievable. Especially when no one expected them to be in the situation they’re in right now. They sky is the limit for them,” said Rockets star James Harden.
“There’s a lot of respect on this side for them,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.
A team left for dead in January won 34 of its final 46 games overall. The Jazz established their core, beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, and made the best team in the league this season break a sweat in the semifinals.
And realistically, the Jazz hit a ceiling against the Rockets. Paul and Harden proved impossible to guard. Clint Capela, the athletic center, had a breakthrough series. Veterans PJ Tucker and Trevor Ariza knocked home open shots and played dogged defense. Eric Gordon provided the scoring spark off the bench.
Utah could’ve folded after losing Games 3 and 4 at Vivint Smart Home Arena and falling into a 3-1 series hole. But the Jazz have exhibited resilience all season. They weren’t going to lay down and surrender. That resilience on Tuesday night produced the best game of the series, a high-paced, back-and-forth affair that was mesmerizing to those who watched in person or on television.
Paul and Mitchell, the veteran and rookie upstart, took turns making impossible plays look easy. Gobert had his best game of the series, blocking five shots. The Jazz trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half, and led by as many as six points in the second half.
“They’ve had the resiliency and the toughness to compete all year, and tonight was no different,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “This is as grateful as I’ve been to be a part of a team.”
In the end, one play made the difference. Mitchell came up lame with a left foot injury with 7:09 remaining in the fourth quarter after Harden stole the ball, then raced upcourt for a dunk and 92-87 Houston lead. The injury robbed the Jazz of their best chance to extend the series to a Game 6 on Thursday night.
Yes, the Jazz rallied again, pulling within 97-96 with 4:34 remaining on Royce O’Neale’s 3-pointer. But that would be as close as they would come, as Paul simply wouldn’t let the Rockets lose.
One of the best point guards in NBA history, Paul hit a 3-pointer on Houston’s next possession to give his team a 100-96 advantage. Then, he worked into the midrange and hit a 19-footer. Then, he banked home another 3 for a 105-96 lead. Then, he hit another midrange jumper.
Paul scored 12 points in those final four minutes and also assisted on a Tucker corner 3-pointer to cap one of the best overall performances the league has seen in this postseason.
“He just willed us to a win,” D’Antoni said. “Even the bank shot — I mean, give me a break. That’s just a player finding a way.”
Mitchell’s 24 points led the Jazz. Playing point guard with Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum out with injuries, Mitchell also had nine assists and four rebounds. Alec Burks came off the bench to score 22 points to cap off a series in which he was a revelation as a bench scorer, possibly even rehabbing his value within the Jazz organization. O’Neale scored 17 points, and defensively held Harden to 7-of-22 shooting from the field. Joe Ingles had 12 points, six assists and five rebounds.