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Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz’s stars burn brightest when it counts most in Game 1 win over Clippers

Donovan Mitchell pours in 45 points, and Rudy Gobert delivers the game-clinching block to lock down the series opener

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jazz fans cheer as the Jazz take the led in the 3rd quarter, in the first full capacity crowd since the pandemic, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers, in game one in the second round of the NBA playoff series at Vivint Arena, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

A great basketball mind once said the team is the game’s most important thing when all is going well, but the star players are the ones who make the difference when it’s not. That’s why they’re stars.

Can the Jazz get an amen on that?

They got one on Tuesday night.

All did not go well for the Jazz against the Clippers in Game 1 at Vivint Arena.

All will not go well in this ridiculously competitive semifinal playoff series.

But there’s a slam-dunk of a chance Donovan Mitchell will make a difference. And Rudy Gobert, too.

They did exactly that in this first game.

Mitchell inspired a scintillating comeback after the Jazz played like garbage early on, falling behind by 14 points in the first half, but then, blitzing the Clippers in the third quarter, and storming through to the end, taking a 112-109 victory, compliments of … You Know Who and You Know Who.

With the final seconds winding down, it was Gobert who blocked Marcus Morris’ final 3-point attempt, which, for the mathematically challenged, would have tied the score had it dusted the net.

“Rudy made a helluva play,” Mitchell said of the big man’s big block.

Mitchell made plenty of his own.

[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]

He threw in 32 second-half points, 45 in all, on drives, on soap-on-a-rope squib shots, on launches from deep, on fiddles and on faddles, on stop-and-pops, on attempts of every kind. He also delivered helpers to his teammates, directing the Jazz attack in the absence of Mike Conley.

“Donovan settled in,” Quin Snyder said, which was akin to saying nuclear fusion is kind of powerful. Again, the power quite literally of a star.

The path to Mitchell’s brilliance meandered through ragged-and-rough play through that initial going. It was oh-so-smooth later.

Prior to this first game, Snyder told his players in so many words to do what every player dreams of hearing his coach say: Shoot fast and shoot often. He begged them, urged them to get good quick looks and whatever they did, do not be bashful about bombing away.

Why should they be?

With the length of certain gifted Clippers defenders, particularly on the perimeter, Snyder didn’t want his guys to pass and pass and pass, to labor and labor and labor, to swing the pick in the salt mine for 22 seconds and then be forced to jack up a desperation heave.

Early offense was good, early transition offense was even better.

Hesitation against this particular opponent was seen as a sin, failing to shoot was complete betrayal. Double-clutching and forgoing a clean attempt was worse than shooting and missing. At least after a miss, an offensive rebound could be a possibility.

In theory.

Well. They followed that instruction and gagged away in their eagerness, badly missing the steadying influence of the hamstrung Conley.

Remember those times during the season when one Jazz shooter would get hot, and then another, and then another, the entire offense catching fire? Like it happened against Memphis in Game 5 of the previous series?

This did not appear to be one of those times.

And then … it was.

“What I’m pleased with,” said Snyder, “we didn’t stop shooting.”

He added: “We were a little bit rushed. And then we settled down. We don’t have to take quick 3s all the time.”

Not every time.

Over that sad-and-sorry spell in the first quarter, the Jazz bricked 21 straight shots. Twenty-freaking-one? Check that, they didn’t brick all of them, two were airballs. They shot a mere 18 percent in that first period. In the initial half, the Jazz made seven of 27 3-pointers, which works out to 25 percent. Overall, they hit 17 of 53 launches.

Maybe laboring and laboring and laboring before a shot wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

“You don’t stop shooting,” Snyder said. “If we’re getting good looks, there’s no reason to stop shooting.”

Except that the Jazz fell behind by double digits, mostly hoisting their shots from distance. They hardly resembled who and what they’ve been for most of 2020-21 — a team whose coach would wisely give them full license to shoot as they may.

Mitchell blamed himself for that early offensive slump, saying: “I let my team down — at both ends of the floor.”

And then he picked it up, jumping the Jazz’s dead battery in a hurry, with a flurry.

Mitchell didn’t just start the engine, he started being a star.

He sparked his team by taking the ball hard to the basket, clearing debris en route to a dominant period, closing the game out with that premium mix of physical moves and razzle-dazzle.

It wasn’t a wholly solitary journey.

It’s not that Mitchell did everything himself. He just enabled everything, energized everything, elevated everything, boosting the Jazz to their hard-fought and happy result — after Gobert’s extraordinary last-second contribution.

And, with that, at the end, the great basketball mind was not just substantiated, he was completely, absolutely, 100-percent right.

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.

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