‘Emotionally spent’ Utah Jazz proud of how they handled a season defined by adversity

Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, center left, reaches down to console Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45), on floor, after the Nuggets 80-78 win during an NBA first round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, Sept. 1,2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

It’s kind of crazy now, isn’t it, to look all the way back to last October and remember that the biggest concern coming out the Utah Jazz’s preseason slate was whether the front office had just wasted $73 million on a supposed sharpshooter who couldn’t seem to hit a shot?

Those were the days.

Still, in a funny kind of way, it wound up bringing the most tumultuous season in history full-circle, considering that the injury-induced absence of Bojan Bogdanovic played no small role in the Jazz’s season ending with an offensively-challenged two-point defeat in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

In the meantime, there was no shortage of drama — fears that new point guard Mike Conley was washed up after struggling to acclimate to his new situation; the woeful bench performance that necessitated a pre-Christmas makeover; consistently inconsistent play on the court punctuated by wild mood swings in which Utah alternately went from looking like title contenders and lottery material; Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell becoming the first and second players in the NBA to test positive for COVID-19, and the league shutting down for months as a result; a report that relationship between the Jazz’s two All-Stars had reached “unsalvageable” status; Bogdanovic’s season-ending surgery; racist diatribes directed at Mitchell on social media in response to his posts about racial injustice; the widely-questioned decision to tank for a specific playoff matchup; even the postseason shutting down for several days as players collectively protested ongoing racial and social issues in this country.

Seeing the season come to a premature end after a 3-1 series lead was wasted when a final, last-ditch, desperation shot rimmed out should have been just the rotten, moldy cherry on top.

And yet, in the aftermath of their defeat to Denver, the Jazz appeared not bitter or angry or downtrodden, but resolute. Disappointed, certainly, that they lost, but also cognizant that after everything that had happened, they were still this close to pulling off what no one thought possible.

“We want more. The goal wasn’t to lose in the first round, obviously, but I’m proud of the way we handled everything that happened within our team,” Gobert said. “I don’t think a lot of teams would be able to go through that.”

Mitchell concurred, noting that, given how pretty much every prognostication of the series had the Nuggets steamrolling the Jazz, the way he and his teammates nearly pulled it off is something to be proud of.

As is rallying back from a 19-point first-half deficit Tuesday night when they got off to an atrocious start and their prospects appeared bleak.

“We fought hard and came back. I’d go to war with any one of these guys in the locker room, with any of these coaches,” Mitchell said. “We could have easily [folded] in the first half, but we have grit and fight, and that’s all you can really ask for.

“We’re ready to fight through anything, that’s one thing I’ve learned about this team,” he added. “And that’s always been the case. It’s a character thing to come back the way we did and to fight the way we did.”

Coach Quin Snyder, likewise, acknowledged the sting of losing a series that his team appeared on the verge of closing out early, but ultimately chose to focus more on similar issues of not giving up, of continuing to fight, of not allowing either that two-game advantage in the rearview mirror or that 19-point Game 7 deficit right there in front of them to dampen their spirits.

That, he argued, counts for quite a bit.

“I guess I would prefer not to say that we blew a 3-1 lead — I know that that’s maybe semantics, but the way that we competed [Tuesday] and what’s happened over the last week in particular, I’m just unbelievably proud of the way that we competed,” Snyder said. “And what I’ll remember about [Game 7] is we were dead in the water in the first half, and weren’t playing well in a lot of ways; our group just kept grinding and kept competing. That, to me, is as significant as anything that happened today.”

And if all of that sounds like some rose-colored-glasses justification to you, well, you’re not altogether wrong.

While “grit and fight” are hardly qualities to be overlooked, the fact remains that, in spite of all those aforementioned impediments this season, the Jazz blew a lead in Game 1, won three straight, surrendered a 15-point lead in Game 5, were mostly noncompetitive in Game 6, and came out in Game 7 — unquestionably their biggest of the season — and played tentative and hesitant for a full quarter before finding their bearings.

Too late, as it turned out.

And now, with a most bizarre season set to be followed by an unconventional offseason, there are myriad more issues swirling about the team’s future: Can the team and Gobert agree on an extension that satisfies his financial desires without hamstringing the organization’s capacity to build around its core? Will Mitchell’s own impending extension be settled as seamlessly as it appears on track for? Can sixth man and free-agent-to-be Jordan Clarkson be retained? Can the bench depth around him be solidified?

Those are all questions that will have to be answered. Though in the wake of that gut-wrenching Game 7 defeat, no one is prepared to answer them just yet.

“Right now, I think everybody is emotionally spent,” Snyder said. “We’re going to try to deal with this loss. I have a lot of gratitude for the opportunity that we’ve had here. Whatever is going to go on going forward, that’s not something right now that I’ve given thought to. I’m sure that’ll happen at some point, but right now, I’m just proud to have had the opportunity to coach this team. It’s been a unique group. The way that the game went [Tuesday night], and as hard-fought as it was, it was emblematic of what this year was like.”

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