And so, it’s over.
The Jazz’s season, their postseason, their bubble stay, their intentions for a move into the Western Conference semifinals, their evidence of marked progression from last year, their hopes for real contention, their half of a memorable M&M matchup, a matchup — Mitchell vs. Murray — that defined this series but, ultimately, didn’t determine it.
Gone. All of it.
Last time it was Houston in the first round, this time Denver in the first, the Jazz finished off by the Nuggets in Game 7, by the count of 80-78.
The major difference? It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy. It … was … slow … and … it … was … hard … and … painful. It was a thousand slices dragged out over those seven games, after leading 3-1 and looking for all of Walt Disney’s World as though they would advance. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, the Jazz had this thing. It was theirs. And then it wasn’t.
Afterward, Donovan Mitchell listed all the business that could have finished this encounter in the Jazz’s favor. The more he listed, the more amazed he got.
Quin Snyder characterized the final game in these words: “There was nothing that was easy.”
Especially absorbing the conclusion.
After putting on one of their best stretches of offensive basketball ever early in this series, led by Mitchell, everyone moving, sharing, creating open looks for one another, and confidently stroking those shots — inside, outside, every side, the Jazz stumbled, bumbled and crumbled — not by themselves, but under the pressure applied by a Nuggets team that would not relent.
At the end, it was too much.
On Tuesday night, all the aforementioned beautiful basketball was junked into a messy punch-fest, one in which defense and toughness rose up and reigned, on both sides, and, in the final second, the Jazz fell one hurried Mike Conley bomb from winning.
The ball caromed away, and a heartbroken Mitchell fell to the court, after which Jamal Murray properly rushed over and hugged him. Mitchell hugged him back.
“There are so many things we could have done that we didn’t,” Mitchell said, postgame. “… We had multiple opportunities to put them away.”
Those opportunities will haunt the Jazz until next season.
Granted, the circumstances here were weird, the players holed up in the bubble, COVID-19 surrounding them, racial injustices raging, player meetings held, games postponed over issues much bigger than basketball and then restarted.
On the court, the Jazz were operating without their second-best scorer.
But in the debris of their monumental three-game collapse, there are still questions to ask about the Jazz’s construct, their inability to close this series out when they had every advantage. They were one point away in regulation of the first game — a contest that was lost in overtime — of sweeping the Nuggets, winning the next three games in impressive fashion.
What isn’t impressive was the Jazz’s shortcoming through the back half.
Everybody gets it — Murray was insane here, although he was actually human in the seventh game, scoring just 17 points, bothered in a way the Jazz couldn’t manage until now.
Here’s the thing, though: The Jazz couldn’t finish.
Is there an echo in here?
It’s an indictment they put upon themselves, made worse by showing that they were good enough to win games — three times — but not good enough to conjure the competitive stones to win the series.
Mitchell did what he could. None of the other Jazz players, other than an occasional showing by Rudy Gobert, provided enough support.
When authentic contention is the goal in the NBA, a team’s stars are held to a different standard, a much higher one. They can’t just play kind of OK or pretty good, they have to be supernova. And every Jazz player not named Mitchell disappointed in one way or another. Whether any of that affects the Jazz and their future makeup remains to be determined, but it should.
Mitchell is a pillar.
Who else can stand with him?
Last offseason it was clear the Jazz needed to find more firepower, so they went out and got it, at the expense of the defense. This season the defense sagged, a shortcoming on constant display in front of the Nuggets — until this last game.
Snyder complimented his team’s competitiveness.
“We were dead in the water in the first half,” he said. “Our group kept grinding and competing.”
But they stopped winning, with everything still on the table.
What should the Jazz do now, after suffering this ignominy?
“We’ll fix it,” Mitchell said.
The Jazz were not good enough, sound enough, tough enough to get past the Nuggets. Even with Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz must improve to battle the best in the West. It’s simple to figure that team development from within won’t be sufficient.
We know this much: The Jazz, up 3-1 in this series and now ousted, aren’t who they thought they were, let alone who they want to be.
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.