Fans playing “Basketball Weirdness Bingo” very nearly could have had a blackout in the first half alone of Tuesday night’s Game 1 between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers.
An 0-for-20 shooting streak? Check. A technical foul for taunting? Yup. A Boogie Cousins sighting? Improbably, yes. A lane violation call? For the first time in a decade or so, yeah. A charge/block call actually overturned on a replay challenge? Really. There was even a Rajon Rondo 3-pointer.
And yet, once all the bizarre randomness taking place at Vivint Arena settled down, the Jazz’s 112-109 victory in their the Western Conference semifinal opener against L.A. was eventually decided by two pretty standard occurrences: An incendiary Donovan Mitchell scoring outburst, and a timely blocked shot from Rudy Gobert.
[Read more: The Triple Team: Jazz force relatively quiet games from Paul George, Kawhi Leonard on way to beating Clippers]
The former gave Jazz fans a Flu Game they can remember without retching, overcoming illness to score Utah’s first 10 points after halftime, and dropping in 32 of his 45 total in the momentum-shifting second half.
The latter, meanwhile, suckered the Clippers into passing the ball just where he wanted them to go on their final, desperate possession, rotated over perfectly, and stretched to deflect Marcus Morris’ last-gasp attempt at a game-tying 3 just before the final horn.
“The saying ‘By any means necessary’ — I think that’s what you saw from a lot of us tonight. And I think that’s what’s going to take to beat this team, and get four wins against this team,” Mitchell said. “We all got to do our part, whether it’s picking up full-court, diving on loose balls, getting those long rebounds, not allowing them second-chance points, getting into the paint, creating. … What’s going to help us win these games is we got to do it by any means necessary.”
While the stakes weren’t quite as high, obviously, as the famed Michael Jordan “Flu Game” against the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals almost a quarter-century ago, Mitchell’s illness-stricken transcendent performance in Tuesday night’s Game 1 was nevertheless pretty impressive on its own merits.
The All-Star guard sparked his previously offense-deficient team — one that missed a mind-boggling 20 consecutive shots in the first quarter — to a huge second-half rally.
“He’s really competitive, but he’s also really determined. I don’t think he was feeling great — a little nauseous, a little light-headed — and he’s just not going to accept that. There’s nothing he’s going to let get in the way of that,” coach Quin Snyder said. “… The other thing is, he’s not afraid to fail. He’s willing to take the next shot.”
Mitchell, when asked about his coach’s revelation, initially said he’d hoped it hadn’t been discussed, but ultimately admitted that no, he wasn’t feeling himself. Not that he was making excuses for a 5-for-14 shooting, 13-point opening half that was decent only by the standards of his worse-still teammates.
“Sometimes you just got to dig deep into a different place. I was getting my ass kicked individually in the first half on both ends of the floor; I wasn’t making the right reads, Luke [Kennard] hit a bunch of shots on me, Reggie [Jackson] hit a bunch of shots of me, and there were situations that I was being lazy and letting that fatigue kind of get to me,” Mitchell said. “So I came in at halftime, I just said, ‘Look, I’m just going to find a way.’”
Or, as teammate Bojan Bogdanovic put it:
“We’re down 13 at halftime, he probably thought, ‘I’ve gotta take over the game,’” said Bogdanovic. “He gave all that energy to the crowd, all that energy to us players.”
[Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz’s stars burn brightest when it counts most in Game 1 win over Clippers]
The Jazz certainly needed some of that after struggling through a first quarter that saw them miss a mind-boggling 20 consecutive attempts at one point and finish 5 for 28 from the field overall.
It wasn’t a ton better in the second quarter, either, as the Jazz went into the halftime break shooting 17 of 53 overall (32.1%), 7 of 27 from deep (25.9%), and trailing by a baker’s dozen (60-47).
A Mitchell foray into the paint for a short jumper. A 3-pointer. Another 3. A slithering drive through traffic and to the rim for a gentle lay-in that made it a personal 10-2 run and got the packed-and-frenzied Vivint Arena shaking.
Though he scored 16 in the period, it was hardly a solo effort.
His teammates, suddenly playing with more burst and effort, joined in, with Derrick Favors sparking a defensive resurgence with a pair of blocked shots that further ignited up the Viv crowd — first stuffing an Ivica Zubac dunk attempt to force a jump ball, then rotating over from the weak side to intercept Rajon Rondo in the paint and swat his layup try into the crowd.
All of which was merely the pretext for Gobert’s late-game heroics.
While Mitchell kept Utah out in front with 16 more points in the fourth, while his teammates chipped in with a steady parade to the free-throw line, it was all but inevitable that the Clippers would chip away at their newfound deficit and have a late shot at salvaging their efforts to steal the opener.
The key sequence of the game naturally came in the final moments, when Gobert rotated to a wide-open Morris, extended to reject his tying 3-point try in the corner, and the final horn sounded before Morris could get up another attempt.
“We were up three, so obviously they needed three to tie the game. Kawhi [Leonard] had the ball, and Joe [Ingles] got switched on Kawhi, so he did a great job trying to take away [a 3] and force him to drive,” Gobert said. “And I kind of faked help, and I knew he was going to pass to Morris for a 3. So I just tried to contest as much as I can.”
While the center was pretty matter-of-fact about the game-saving play, his teammate, naturally, was a bit more ebullient and effusive in describing the feeling that came over him, watching that final sequence unfold.
“You kind of have just a sense that something good is going to happen. You don’t know how or what, but once I saw the swing go to him — he thrives in those moments,” said Mitchell. “He definitely hears the chatter that he can’t guard outside the paint, so those are moments that he lives for.”
Mitchell, meanwhile, is not living for the praise that comes with a 45-point performance.
He’s just living for the next opportunity to get his team one win closer.
“This was good. But I’m at a point where it doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “We’re onto Game 2.”