Editor’s note: If not for the coronavirus outbreak, the NBA Finals would be wrapping up right about now. In the spirit of postseason fervor, The Salt Lake Tribune is doing a multi-part series on the most impactful playoff runs in Jazz history. Part 1 — 1983-84: The Jazz save professional basketball in Utah. Part 2 — 1987-88: Trading haymakers with the champs. Part 3 — 1991-92: A huge step forward, but still coming up short. Part 4 — 1996-97: Finally breaking through, only to suffer heartbreak. Part 5 — 1997-98: A tumultuous season sees unfinished business stay that way. Part 6 — 2006-07: A different cast of characters propels the franchise forward. Part 7 (finale) — 2017-18: A lottery-bound group comes together to defy expectations.
July 4, 2017 was supposed to be the day that decimated the Utah Jazz.
After all, that was the day that unrestricted free agent Gordon Hayward clumsily concluded the will-he-won’t-he saga that had weighed on fans’ hearts and minds for months by finally admitting that yes, those rumors his agent had denied only hours before were indeed true — he was leaving Salt Lake City to join the Boston Celtics.
It was thought his departure would single-handedly reduce to rubble the painstaking rebuild, the years-long progress that had elevated the franchise from five straight years of playoff-less basketball to finally making it back to the postseason at the conclusion of the 2016-17 campaign.
“Utah is a trendy pick for Team Destined To Fall, which is understandable; the Jazz won 51 games and did lose Hayward,” read the team’s season preview on NBA.com. “The challenges are obvious, then. They must find a reliable 20-point scorer and bail-out artist and that person might not be on the current roster.”
Actually, about that …
What no one could have known at the time of Hayward’s exodus was that, just 12 days earlier, the organization actually had secured its reliable 20-point scorer and had landed its bailout artist. Goodbye Trey Lyles and No. 24 draft pick Tyler Lydon, and welcome, Mr. Donovan Mitchell.
Still, in the moment of Hayward’s decision, the outlook was grim. All the other top free agents that offseason had already settled on their new homes. And contract extension negotiations with revelatory point guard George Hill broke down, spurring him to accept an offer from the Sacramento Kings instead. With no viable option to bolster the team via a big free-agent move, general manager Dennis Lindsey pivoted by acquiring point guard Ricky Rubio from Minnesota, then augmenting around the edges by signing long-armed defenders and ball-movement types such as Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh and Jonas Jerebko.
“I think one thing we got better at this summer is having a good bench,” center Rudy Gobert told The Salt Lake Tribune then. “We have more depth, quality depth, with guys like Ekpe and Jonas and Donovan and Joe Johnson. That’s going to help us this year.”
Still, with no way of knowing the immediate brilliance of Mitchell to come, expectations of the team were, to put it nicely, modest.
In his season preview piece, then-Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe encouraged Jazz fans to forget all about the good vibes of the 51-win season before, noting that a downturn was inevitable with so much offensive talent lost.
“Anyone expecting the Jazz to establish anything close to a 51-win pace as this season unfolds is sure to be disappointed. I’ve got them finishing 42-40, fighting for the last playoff berth in the Western Conference,” Kragthorpe wrote. “… This team will get better next year, and the year after that. But this season? It feels like a fresh start, which is not necessarily a good thing.”
A slow start, an epic comeback
With the departures of Hayward and Hill, it was assumed that Rodney Hood would become the Jazz’s leading scorer that season. With the ascendance of Mitchell, though, Hood was out of the starting lineup by November (and off the team by February, shipped to Cleveland for Jae Crowder after growing unhappy with his sixth man role).
Still, while Mitchell was outperforming expectations, the Jazz were mostly living down to the dire predictions most had made for them.
It certainly didn’t help that Gobert, one of the league’s top defenders, suffered a bone contusion in the team’s Nov. 10 game against Miami. Not only did the Jazz lose that game — their fourth straight — when they managed only 74 points, but they would lose Gobert for the next 11 contests, too. He returned Dec. 4 against Washington, but went down again Dec. 15, when teammate Derrick Favors fell into his knee.
On Jan. 13, just after the midway point of the 82-game schedule, a 99-88 loss to Charlotte which dropped Utah to 17-25 prompted Kragthorpe to conclude that whatever meager playoff chances he might have thought possible in the season’s nascent days were by now long gone, and that tanking for a lottery pick appeared the prudent course of action.
“The Jazz’s 2018 playoff quest realistically ended Friday with the start of the second half of the season. The Jazz would have to cover a 4½-game spread to qualify in the Western Conference. That’s unlikely,” he wrote. “So maximizing this season would require getting worse and drafting higher. The Jazz stand closer to the third-worst record in the NBA than to the West’s last playoff spot.”
Improbably, the worst was still yet to come.
Their 104-90 loss to an unequivocally wretched Atlanta team on Jan. 22 dropped them to 19-28 and prompted a long look in the mirror from everyone involved.
“There were times where we kind of looked like we didn’t want to play, myself included,” Mitchell said afterward. “That’s not us. That’s not our identity. I think we just gotta come out with more life and more energy. I think if we play like we played here, there will be a lot of nights like this.”
It was a crossroads of sorts, but which direction would they choose: Spiraling downward into oblivion? Or clawing their way back to the top?
By the time they went into the All-Star break on an 11-game winning streak, it seems that question had been answered.
After losing two of their first three out of the break, the Jazz responded with another extended run of success, a nine-game win streak that culminated with a scrappy win over Sacramento. And just like that, Utah sat at 40-30 overall, and at fifth place in the Western Conference.
“When we got together in September, I don’t think anyone anticipated the situation we are in right now,” coach Quin Snyder said after the win over the Kings. “We were focused on improving and being present. We obviously cared about results, but we were focused on understanding the situation we were in. We had an emphasis on the long term, and we had a hunger to get better.”
On April 8, in what would be the fifth of six consecutive wins, Utah clinched perhaps the most improbable playoff berth in franchise history.
And though a season-closing loss to Portland would drop them from the West’s third seed to fifth, and cost them home-court advantage in their coming series against the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder, they were nevertheless proud of their 29-6 finish to the season, proud of their No. 2 defensive rating in the league, proud of having an opportunity to prove themselves once more.
“Making the playoffs, it means a lot to us,” Gobert said. “We always knew we could do it. We went through the offseason and training camp and we worked hard as a team and organization to get to this point. We’re excited, but it’s only the beginning.”
Winning one duel, firing blanks the next
Sure, these Jazz getting to the playoffs was a feel-good success story, and as one-half of the No. 4/5 matchup, no one was completely writing them off, but most observers felt that in going against an opponent featuring reigning MVP and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, two-way star Paul George and offensive juggernaut Carmelo Anthony, Utah was probably outgunned.
That certainly seemed to be the case in Game 1, when George casually dropped in 36 points on 13-for-20 shooting, including going 8 of 11 on 3-pointers — a performance that prompted him to dub himself “Playoff P” in the aftermath. In all, Oklahoma City, which came in 23rd in the NBA in 3-point percentage, made 14 of 29 from deep, and the Thunder, who were second-to-last in free-throw percentage, made 20 of 23 from the foul line.
The Jazz wouldn’t make things quite that easy, though. In Game 2, Mitchell shrugged off a toe injury that had his playing status in question until an hour before tipoff. Utah was able to withstand a 19-0 third-quarter run by OKC thanks to the rookie, who scored 20 of his 28 points in the second half (including 13 in the fourth period) for a 102-95 victory.
“If he was feeling something, he didn’t show it,” Snyder said of Mitchell. “When he really got aggressive going to the rim, some other things opened up.”
After stealing a win at Chesapeake Arena, the Jazz were determined to capitalize on it at home. Ricky Rubio poured in 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists in their Game 3 victory for Utah’s playoff first triple-double since 2001. Then, in Game 4, Mitchell took care of the offense with 33 points, while Rubio baited the embarrassed and overaggressive Westbrook into four first-half fouls, as the Jazz rolled to a 3-1 series lead.
They had a chance to close it out in Game 5 in Oklahoma City, surging to a 71-46 third-quarter lead, only to squander it all before the period was over, as Westbrook and Paul combined for 79 points and forced the series back to Salt Lake City.
The former shrugged off a nerve-ridden lackluster first half by opening the third period with 10 straight points. In one stretch, he made 10 shots in a row, and he racked up 22 points in that quarter alone.
“Coach Quin called that, the whole thing,” Mitchell said. “The first half, I was hesitant — kind of nervous, to be honest with you. He came up to me after one of the timeouts and the half ended, and he said, ‘We’re gonna win this game and you’re gonna go off.’ Word for word, that’s what he said.”
Still, Westbrook kept answering back. The Thunder guard finished with 46 points, albeit on an inefficient 18 of 43 from the field. Mitchell totaled 38 points on 14-for-26 shooting, and a pair of free throws in the waning moments sealed yet another highlight in Utah’s magical season.
Of course, “magic” only gets you so far when your next opponent is a singularly-talented Houston Rockets squad that went 65-17 overall and 4-0 vs. Utah in the regular season. Losing Rubio to a hamstring injury in the OKC finale practically sealed the deal.
The Rockets led by as many as 27 in the first half of Game 1 and rolled to a 110-96 rout. Utah improbably pulled off a Game 2 upset, though, as Joe Ingles hit 7 of 9 shots from deep for 27 points, and Mitchell — forced into unfamiliar point-guard duty — amassed 11 assists.
That brief glimmer of hope was quickly extinguished, though, by a simply superior adversary. The Jazz’s only lead of Game 3 came when Ingles drilled a triple on the opening possession; Houston led 70-40 at halftime and cruised. Game 4 was closer, but the Jazz were undone by an 8-for-23 shooting effort in the fourth period. And in Game 5, they were within a point with just under 5 minutes to play, but could not contain Chris Paul down the stretch, as he finished with 41 points and 10 assists to bring Utah’s season to an emphatic halt.
“They are unbelievable. Especially when no one expected them to be in the situation they’re in right now,” said Rockets star James Harden. “The sky is the limit for them.”
Considering what the expectations of the team were when Hayward bolted before the season, coming away feeling disappointed after losing in the Western Conference semifinals said something about this Jazz team.
Still, as they cleaned out their lockers and conducted their exit interviews in the aftermath, they vowed that they were not satisfied. That they would return hungrier. That there would be more yet to come.
“We feel like this is the beginning of a new era,” Crowder said.