It was the strangest thing.
As the Jazz filed out of Toyota Center on Tuesday night, having tasted defeat for the last time this season by way of a 10-point loss to the Rockets, a very mild kind of disappointment descended, the kind that was so mild that it seemed more like delight. There was no anger, no sense of doom and gloom. There was an aura of finality but only an oxymoronic temporary one, one that lasted for … oh, about two minutes, and then … poof, it was gonzo. The feel was more sentimental than sour.
Somehow this team was … what’s this, cheerful? Pleased? Buoyant?
It was ready to break out the doughnuts and juice boxes, taking victory from defeat. You would have thought the Jazz were going to pile into the team bus and head off to Mickey D’s for cheeseburgers and milkshakes. As though this whole playoff-elimination deal was a beginning, not an ending, a step forward, not a failure.
Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale even laughed in their postgame news conference. Rudy Gobert talked about how amazing the season was, how excited he is for the future.
Never before had the agony of defeat looked so appealing.
“It’s definitely something to be happy about,” Mitchell said. “From everybody, from Joe to myself to Royce, Rudy, Ricky [Rubio] … Danté Exum, AB, everybody down the line did their part. We’ll reflect on it the next few days.”
And the entire offseason.
Of all the lessons the Jazz learned from their playoff series with the Rockets, and before that with the Thunder, this one stands out the most: Their work is far from complete. But the work they’ve already put in is not a waste.
They are setting the foundation for something positive straight ahead, something to launch off of. That’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation of what must occur for a Mitchell-Gobert era of the Jazz to bounce on. Facing James Harden and Chris Paul in the postseason’s second round was part of that evolution, and if you struggle to believe that, talk to those two Rockets stars about their own playoff path/losses of the past and the climb they’ve had to make.
For all the hubbub over Mitchell’s rookie of the year race, it’s still easy to forget that he’s just 21 years old. And that the position in which he found himself against the Rockets, with Rubio out with a bad hamstring, was an overwhelming load. As Quin Snyder put it, the Jazz’s young primary scoring option was being forced to direct the attack against “the best team in the league.” A team that has two future Hall-of-Famers on its guard line.
Losing to them and learning from them had as many benefits as bumps.
Gobert, the Jazz’s other pillar, was criticized by some, me included, for being outplayed over stretches by Clint Capela, and that is a fact. But his workload at the defensive end was unique in this series — constantly having to cover two players at once, not just players, but great players.
There is room for improvement with Mitchell and Gobert. Both are young. Both are smart. Both are unique. Both are teachable. Both are driven. Both want to play — and win — for the Jazz. Mitchell needs more precision in his game. Gobert needs more strength in the low post, better ball security, more substance to his offense.
But the Mitch-Go combo will be in Utah for the foreseeable future, along with some of the more useful additional pieces. And maybe a couple of additions, too. The Jazz need a boost of scoring, and scorers can be found at a price around the NBA. One that fits in exactly with this group, with the right attitude and willingness to listen and learn and connect with the rest, might be more scarce.
“This is kind of as grateful as I’ve been in the time I’ve been doing this,” Snyder said. “To be part of a team that has had the resiliency and the toughness to compete the way they have all year. … I don’t know if you can ask for a better effort from our group. I don’t think our team has ever really looked at what we can’t do, [only] what we can do. That mindset is one that has given these guys a chance to have a heck of a season.”
A remarkable season, really, one nobody envisioned for the team after its loss of Gordon Hayward and George Hill. But the Jazz weathered an early storm, hung in, got healthy, and moved forward instead of collapsing.
They could have packed it in. They instead went from sad sacks to second-round playoff qualifiers.
“I’m happy,” Mitchell said. “Happy with everybody as a whole.”
Changes will come beyond the yet-unknown additions. Derrick Favors enters free agency, and the Jazz’s retaining of him will depend on what the cost is and on what Favors wants. Exum is a restricted free agent. Believe it or not — shocking, isn’t it? — there are good players around the league who want to play in Utah, want to play for Snyder.
The Jazz’s identity is established, thriving, and as the coach said, “It will grow.”
Get used to seeing the Jazz in the playoffs then. And with that key addition or two, they could make deep runs — will be expected to make them — against quality competition in the West.
“Looking forward, we have a great team,” said O’Neale, another rookie. ”And we’ll build off it. … We’ll be back.”
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.