There were some tense moments there for a while.
For a few nervous minutes in the third quarter Wednesday night — well, and the fourth too, if we’re being honest — it was looking like even the return of one Donovan Mitchell might not be enough to save the top-seeded Utah Jazz from a soul-crushing 0-2 deficit in their first-round playoff series.
Deep breaths, everybody.
Despite the frayed nerves all around, in the end, the Jazz did just enough — juuuuuuuust enough — to scratch and claw their way to a 141-129 series-evening victory at Vivint Arena. Had Utah dropped the first two games on its home court, their championship aspirations might well have been on the verge of being dashed embarrassingly early.
It never came to that.
Mitchell’s start and Rudy Gobert’s finish proved perfect bookends to Utah’s first 2021 postseason victory.
The All-Star guard, playing his first game since spraining his ankle on April 16, and coming off Sunday’s drama when he was inexplicably held out, ignited both his team and the Viv crowd early by burying a nothing-but-net 3 on his first shot attempt.
He’d score 12 points in the opening quarter as the Jazz surged ahead, and despite being put on a minutes restriction, wound up with 25 for the game — including a pair of crucial 3-pointers down the stretch — in 26 minutes of action.
He conceded that he had to give himself on-court pep talks to keep from exploding out of the gates and expending all his energy early.
“It really started with me before the game. I’m a competitor, I know myself. There are times where I got sped up. I had a moment where I think I ran into Royce and turned it over. Understanding that, you’re just talking to yourself,” Mitchell said. “I’ve never been in this position before, so it’s uncharted territory, so I had to find a way to just relax myself. It’s easy to go out there and try and hit a home run to start the game, but the game’s not won in the first five minutes, you know what I mean?”
Coach Quin Snyder said that given the circumstances, and the natural inclination to try and impose his will on the action, to prove a point, Mitchell’s restraint was all the more impressive.
“Well, any time you’ve been out for a long period of time, there’s a tendency to try to really put a stamp on the game. And I thought he really let the game come to him. He was patient. He got a few catch-and-shoot 3s early where he got good looks, got off the ball, and kind of made a simple play,” Snyder said. “And then I think as the game went on, you saw him attacking the basket more — but he really played within himself. I thought he just made the right plays. And obviously it’s good to have him back. It certainly changes our team.”
The team changed yet more still in a dreadful third quarter, though.
Memphis trimmed a 20-point halftime deficit all the way down to two in the period, and wound up racking up 43 points in the quarter on 18-for-27 shooting, as Utah’s defense all but evaporated.
The game’s momentum was swinging the Grizzlies’ way; the Jazz were in danger of dropping the two opening playoff games on their own home court.
Gobert wouldn’t allow it to happen.
He began the fourth-quarter scoring with a dunk off an assist from Mike Conley. He challenged a Dillon Brooks midrange floater, then half a minute later, dunked again off another feed from Conley. He then blocked a Jaren Jackson Jr. jumper, sparking a fast-break by Mitchell that produced a layup-and-one. Seven-point spurt, 13-point advantage, heart rates back to normal.
“We weren’t executing the way that we needed to, and I think Rudy made some adjustments individually where he was able to put himself in the play more and be more impactful,” said Snyder. “And that’s something that he’s always trying to feel.”
Gobert wound up a perfect 5 for 5 from the floor in the fourth quarter, of which he played all 12 minutes. Just another day at the office for the presumptive three-time Defensive Player of the Year, who racked up 21 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks — including the singular highlight of the evening when he rejected an attempted tomahawk throwdown by the otherwise-incendiary Ja Morant in the second quarter.
“I just tried to do what I do — protect the basket, just pretty much play off my instincts,” Gobert said. “I know that he’s really athletic, so if I’m late, it’s a little bit harder for me — so I gotta anticipate and try to time it. And you know, if he makes it, [expletive] it — I’ve just got to be there and try to make it difficult.”
That certainly is a vibe.
So too was the game-ops crew blasting Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” — Jordan Clarkson’s hand-picked team anthem — as the Jazz left the court.