Utah Jazz fans have been waiting all series long for their team to put the hammer down on the young-and-overmatched-but-resilient Memphis Grizzlies.
No time like Wednesday’s closeout Game 5 to do it.
The Jazz drilled nine 3-pointers in the opening quarter. Donovan Mitchell racked up 26 points by halftime. Utah stretched its advantage past the 30-point mark just three minutes and change into the third quarter. And the fourth … well, that was an all-but-forgettable victory lap.
And that was that. The formerly feisty Grizzlies’ remaining resolve dissipated, the Jazz cruised to a 126-110 victory, and the team’s much-maligned two-year streak of first-round playoff eliminations was put out of its misery.
And while it’s accomplishment, it’s not one the team will be satisfied with for long.
“This one was huge because I haven’t done this since my rookie year, you know? For me personally, it’s just something that I’ve wanted to accomplish. But it’s not the end goal,” Mitchell said. “… We didn’t come this far to just win one series, and be like, ‘Oh, we didn’t lose a 3-1 [lead] like we did last year. This is just one series. We gotta come out here and do it again. And again and again. We’ll savor the moment, enjoy it, ’cause it’s been three years, but at the same time, we have a job to do.”
To that point, they now await the winner of the 4-vs.-5 series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks.
Naturally, there had to be an asterisk to it all.
Now looming over the team is the status of All-Star point guard Mike Conley, who checked out of the game at the 8:58 mark of the second quarter, and was ruled out for the remainder of the game at halftime, owing to right hamstring soreness.
Conley missed 21 games this season owing to that very injury — including nine in a row down the stretch run of the regular season.
He had been brilliant all series long against the Grizzlies, the franchise he spent the first 12 seasons of his career with. But he couldn’t close it out. He totaled seven points and two assists in 11:35 of game time before checking out for good.
Conley said he is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Thursday morning, and while he maintained optimism that he’d be ready to go for the Western Conference semifinal opener, his status for that round is now very much in question.
The Jazz, of course, have proven exceedingly adept at surviving short-handed, and Wednesday was no different.
They hit 14 of their first 18 shots overall, including 7 of 9 from beyond the arc, in opening up a 47-27 lead after the first quarter.
“Setting the tone was huge. We did that as a unit on both ends of the floor,” said Mitchell. “But [it was] understanding that you can’t give a team like that life; you saw it at the end of the game — you give them some glimmer of hope and then they come out there and start making shots. So we just wanted to try and take that from them early.”
They weren’t able to keep that pace up, obviously, but some elite performances from Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and some great ones from Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, and Jordan Clarkson kept them well in control.
Mitchell went into the break with 26 points on 10-for-13 shooting, including 5 of 7 from 3. He’d finish the game with 30 points, six rebounds and 10 assists.
Gobert had a typically dominant and efficient performance racking up 23 points (on 10-for-13 shooting), plus 15 boards and three blocks.
Bogdanovic had a hot-shooting first half and totaled 17 points, eight rebounds, and four assists. O’Neale was aggressive with his shooting, and notched 17 points on 7-for-11 from the field. And Clarkson overcame a slow start to finish with 24 off the bench.
The Grizzlies finally waved the white flag with 2:46 to play, emptying the bench down 20.
The Jazz did the same seconds later.
And with the deep reserves’ entry into game came some measure of relief, some exorcism of demons, some ability to at least temporarily quiet the detractors who’ve been wondering ever since last year’s meltdown against the Nuggets whether this team has the mental fortitude to succeed in the playoffs.
Coach Quin Snyder, naturally, didn’t see much reason to dwell on the subject.
“Well, I think it shows that last year is last year and this year is this year; Game 3 is Game 3 and Game 5 is Game 5,” he said. “The thing about this time of year is that it’s as important to be able to forget as it is to be able to remember. And I think our guys have been focused on controlling what we can control.”
His players, however, had no problem acknowledging how eager they were to get that first-round monkey off their back, to get the lingering bad taste from last season’s loss to the Nuggets out of their mouths.
“We obviously knew and felt the underlying pressure of being up 3-1 again, but at the same time, we also know that this team is different. This team has grown a lot since we learned a lot from that,” Conley said. “Those growing pains are necessary — if you want to win a championship, you have to go through those years where you have situations like that. And hopefully that was our lesson learned. We came out tonight really locked in. You could tell from the first possession how we were going to come out play. And it was beautiful to be a part of a win like that.”
Now, the Jazz turn their attention to Conley’s health, and to facing either the Clippers or Mavericks. Those teams will have at least one more game to go in their series after Dallas secured a 3-2 series lead later Wednesday night.
In the meantime, Utah has a bit to celebrate. But also plenty to look forward to.
Four wins down. Twelve more to go.
“Memphis is a really tough team — they gave us a fight every single night. They have a lot of talent. It was a great first round for us — every game was a battle, and we definitely got better by facing this team. So give them a little shout-out,” said Gobert. “[As for] the doubters, there’s always gonna be doubters. But we know where we want to be as a team, we know the work that we’ve put in, we know that we’re only gonna keep getting better.”