As Rudy Gobert strutted off the court for a timeout the other day, having put another two-fisted dunk on the bean of Nikola Jokic and declared himself a huge threat to the overall well-being of the Denver Nuggets, a grinning Donovan Mitchell, who had been sitting on the bench for a brief rest, ran to him and shoved the big man straight in the midsection, the way only friends do.
Love was in the air.
In that moment and in almost every moment at present, nobody — certainly not either of them — remembers any kind of rift between the two Jazz stars. They were together again, doing what they had planned on doing side by side for seasons now — winning another playoff game.
Maybe the exchange was bigger than just that. Maybe it was emblematic of the healing that can take place in the midst of a pandemic. Two athletes, two teammates, who had been at the sporting center of the COVID-19 outbreak nearly six months ago, testing positive and shutting down the NBA, and having sore feelings about it, coming together in purpose, in production, in playfulness, in positivity.
And the longterm ramifications of the moment could be significant, too.
Either way, there wasn’t a negative vibe anywhere in sight, at least not anywhere other than on and around the Nuggets’ bench.
Mitchell’s and Gobert’s Jazz are creating that mojo, playing like a team united, playing about as well as any Jazz team ever has.
In two games, they’ve scored a combined 248 points and limited the Nuggets to 192. They’ve absolutely thumped a team that looks beyond confused, it looks defeated. That only happens when one opponent dominates another, when one opponent makes it happen.
The Jazz have taken a 2-1 series lead after losing the first game in overtime, which means they are one point away from leading this thing, 3-zip, in an affair almost nobody gave them a chance of winning without the help of injured Bojan Bogdanovic.
And the best thing, as far as Quin Snyder is concerned, about the current state and stance of his team is that it is far from feeling fat and satisfied. Mitchell warned all with ears to hear after Friday’s 37-point crushing that there is crushing yet to get done.
The crushing that already has gotten done against Denver has come via a Jazz convergence that’s happened before over regular-season stretches, but it’s been a couple of postseasons since it’s happened in the season that really matters — the second one. The Jazz played brilliantly in beating Oklahoma City in Mitchell’s rookie season, but since then, ouster at the hands of Houston has been their playoff frame of reference.
The Jazz are in the midst of adjusting that frame.
And the way they’re doing it is the time-worn mystical mix of the physical and the mental. They’re shooting the ball well, in part, because they’re moving it the way Snyder wants them to, creating spacing and finding the hottest hand, Mitchell, and the hottest hands, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Gobert, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, Georges Niang. Everybody’s in the pool. And those hands are hot, in part, because the confidence that has stirred in minds connected to those hands is soaring, led by … You-Know-Who.
We’ve seen those same minds and hands sag and go cold at times.
The difference is in the mystical mix, which has also conjured active, rugged defense.
Gobert hit on it before Game 3, when he said something that was more profound than it seemed when he first said it:
“No matter what I do, I try to bring out the best in my teammates. It’s something as a leader I try to translate to my teammates and see how it fuels them.”
It fueled them, all right.
Gobert’s 20 first-half points and 11 rebounds destroyed the Nuggets, destruction more than noticed by Denver coach Mike Malone, who said his team quit in the second quarter. That’s as indicting a thing as any coach can say about his team.
But as much as swinging a hammer on the Nugs, Gobert’s performance boosted the Jazz, not unlike the way Mitchell’s showings in games 1 and 2 lifted them. Next thing, Conley is dusting the net, Ingles is dialing in, Clarkson is whirling around, Niang is finding range, and collectively, the Jazz are throwing up resistance at the other end that thwarted Denver.
The energy caused was as uneven, as straight lopsided as a Kardashian cartwheel, as a Nate Newton backflip. The Jazz had it, the Nuggets lost it.
Another thing: The abundant harmony — and accuracy — conjured by the Jazz was evidenced in their sharing of the ball. They had 32 assists in Game 2 and 27 in Game 3. In the Mitchell era, when the Jazz get 26 or more assists, their record is a ridiculous 68-11.
“Our guys are committed,” Snyder said, “to moving the ball.”
When Conley was asked about his sterling 27-point performance on 9-for-13 shooting in the third game, he said with a shrug: “The guys made it easy.”
The physical feeds the mental, the mental feeds the physical, and combined they feed victory.
The Jazz, then, led by their two determined and grinning stars, are working and feasting together, playing in unison, winning playoff games they might otherwise lose.
And the more Mitchell and Gobert win together, in this series and any other, the more they grow together, the more fulfillment they find together, the more likely it is that they’ll want to stay together and play together with the Jazz over the long haul. And the Jazz, in turn, will want them together.
Other than that, nothing’s at stake here.
As it is, though, in all the winning, the congenial Rud-ovan partnership is bonded again. Mitchell is scoring and shoving Gobert in friendship, Gobert is running and ruling the floor and taking the shove as intended.
Love is in the air.
They are healed from what ailed them.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.