Detroit • As Donovan Mitchell drove the lane from the right side with less than 30 second remaining and the Jazz up just three, he went down awkwardly, the ball coming out of his hands and bouncing away. He dived on the court to retrieve it, then fought off a defender’s attempt to snatch it from him, knowing that losing control would likely yield a transition bucket the other way.
As he sat on the floor, holding the ball, he caught a glimpse of Joe Ingles all alone, way over on the left side of the court, and lofted a pass his way. Ingles, with the shot clock running down, accelerated into the paint and dropped the ball off to big man Rudy Gobert, who was hacked and sent to the line for what would prove to be the game-clinching free throws.
No, the Jazz’s execution down the stretch on Saturday at Little Caesars Arena wasn’t always pretty, but it was just gritty enough to pull off a 111-105 victory, which gave Utah a sweep of its road trip, its fifth win in a row overall, and improved the team’s record to 41-22 on the season.
“Those are big plays. I think games sometimes tip on a loose ball, on a rebound, or someone hustling back on transition and making a play,” coach Quin Snyder said. “Donovan got to the floor and fought for the ball, and we were actually ready to call a timeout, but he was able to make a pretty amazing pass, actually, across the court to Joe. The important thing about that is you get a chance to not have to defend after a turnover, which is a lot harder.”
Mitchell confirmed he recognized the paramount importance of not turning the ball over on there — as what easily could have become a one-point game instead became five.
“I just tried to get to a stepback and I slipped. I knew where Joe was, so I knew if I got the ball I’d be able to get it there. It was just a matter of grabbing it,” Mitchell recalled. “Mike was telling me he was right next to me — I didn’t even hear him; I just had my eyes locked in on Joe. I knew there was like five seconds left [on the shot clock], so I figured if I hit him, he’d be at least able to get a shot off or do something with it.”
Conley remembered trying to get Mitchell’s attention, then watching in horror — and, subsequently, amazement — as Mitchell’s pass went to Ingles instead.
“I was like, ‘Don, Don, Don!’ I saw what he was looking at and was like, ‘There’s no way he’s about to throw this,’” Conley said. “He threw it all the way across the court and I was like, ‘Hat’s off to him.’ I don’t even know how he did that.”
Of course, the play, while certainly unique, wouldn’t have carried the same weight if not for a first-half blowout becoming a second-half competition.
As the game progressed, Utah’s players not only had to fight off increasingly heavy legs, but also Detroit big man Christian Wood, whose frenetic hustle generated 20 of his career-high 30-points after halftime.
The last time the Jazz trailed in a fourth quarter was their Feb. 26 loss to the Boston Celtics. But after the surging Pistons used an 11-3 run late in the third quarter and a 6-0 run to start the fourth and tie the apparently fading Jazz, that streak appeared to be history.
Utah wasn’t quite ready to let it go, however.
After Wood missed a go-ahead 3 try, got his own rebound, then lost the ball, Conley got the salvation effort started with a transition layup the other way. Then, after Bruce Brown missed a floater, Jordan Clarkson came down and buried a hurry-up trey. After another Detroit miss came an Ingles drive and floater.
By the time the Jazz were done with their blitz, they’d amassed an 18-2 run that gave them a 97-82 cushion — enough to withstand the Pistons’ last-gasp rally in the game’s final minutes.
“When they tied the game, our guys did exactly what you said, they responded. Anytime you get a lead, it’s something you’ve got to be focused on keeping. In NBA games, there’s lots of big leads that change hands, and for us to respond the way that we did was a really good thing,” Snyder said. “We can be sharper down the stretch; I think all our guys know that and that’s something that we’ll focus on and talk about, but that shouldn’t cloud the fact that we came out with great focus and intensity on the defensive end, and, as you said, did respond when we needed to.”
One night after the Jazz’s two premier scoring options, Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic, combined for just 19 points on 5-for-24 shooting in Boston, both were efficiently effective in Detroit, with Bogey notching 32 points (on 12-for-18 shooting) and five rebounds, and Mitchell adding 25 points (on 8 of 14 from the field) plus five boards of his own.
Gobert finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks — all highlighted by those pair of free-throw swishes to put the Jazz up five with 18.5 seconds to play.
While Utah had a lackluster night from 3-point range, going just 10 of 33, they more than made up for it inside the arc, where they converted 30 of 44 shots (68.2%).
Still, as Snyder mentioned, the Jazz believe it was ultimately their defense that made the biggest difference, as the Pistons had to rebound from a first half in which they made only 42.5% of their shots overall, and went 3 of 15 from downtown.
“We’re picking up the ball a little bit earlier, we’re being a little bit more aggressive on screens, and I think everybody is just kind of feeding off of each other’s energy,” Conley said. “When we’re playing that hard and that aggressive while communicating, we can beat some really good teams and have some good stretches of basketball. I think we’re learning that, that we can be that good. We’ve just got to continue to do it.”