Los Angeles • You could blame it on ill-timed injuries — Donovan Mitchell’s ankle and Mike Conley’s hamstring betraying them in the postseason, limiting their ability to perform at their peak. Even Rudy Gobert took a nasty fall on his hip in the first quarter Friday and had his mobility compromised thereafter.
But that’s not why the Utah Jazz lost at Staples Center on Friday night.
That’s not why their season is over.
When they needed poise, when they needed focus, when they needed resolve … they faltered, they forgot, they fell apart.
They lost 131-119 in a do-or-die Game 6.
Terance Mann signed their season-ending death certificate in the final hours of June 18, 2021.
And all the Jazz could do afterward was wonder how it all went so incredibly wrong so incredibly fast.
“It hasn’t fully sunk in for me yet. I’m still in shock,” Mitchell said afterward. “… I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next week. I’ll probably be sitting here, mad as hell, watching the games. This hurts more than last year because we were up again. And lost — again. This is gonna eat at me for a long time.”
Especially with how beautifully it was going early on.
Conley’s return … Mitchell’s grittiness … Jordan Clarkson’s flame-thrower activation … stellar defensive rotations — it all added up to a 22-point halftime lead … which became a 25-point lead once Mitchell drained a 3 out of halftime.
Game 7 on Sunday afternoon at Vivint Arena was 24 minutes of action away.
Thing is, the Jazz seemingly forgot what got them there in those last 24 minutes.
The Clippers adjusted. The Jazz did not.
Los Angeles came out of halftime with energy and effort and fire, determined not to go out so meekly.
And the Jazz wilted.
Time after time, the Jazz either opted to let Mann shoot or simply forgot that he could. And he made them pay. Again and again.
And on the other end, they either coughed up it or settled for a mediocre look, the blender’s engine grinding to a stilted halt for the final time.
By the time the third quarter was over, the stagnant-and-nervous Jazz had shot 8 of 21, allowed the Clippers to hit 15 of 21, and surrendered a 24-6 run that whittled their advantage down to a mere three points.
It didn’t take long for the Clippers to tie it — and then to take the lead.
Utah scored 72 points in the first half, and just 47 after it.
The Clippers totaled only 50 in the opening two quarters, but steamrolled their way to 81 in the latter two.
The Jazz committed six turnovers (and surrendered 10 points off of them) in the opening 24 minutes, then coughed it up 11 times in the final 24 — yielding 21 points off those errors.
Utah shot 38% after the break. L.A. hit an absolutely unbelievable 71% overall, and an even more unfathomable 74% from 3.
“We were trying to guard the ball and we struggled to stay in front. … Mann started making shots, everybody made shots — they were 74% from 3, which is an unusual number,” said coach Quin Snyder. “That said, there were obviously things we didn’t execute on, beginning with being able to defend the ball up front.”
And so, while the Staples Center crowd exulted in their team’s first-ever trip to the Western Conference finals, the stunned Jazz — who had rolled to the NBA’s best record i the regular season — were once again left to wonder what the pathway is to an increasingly elusive pinnacle.
But that’s a big-picture question they were not ready to address i the immediate aftermath. Their takeaway Friday was simply that the Clippers, themselves beset by injury, deserved it more.
“They were the tougher team over the course of the series, they were the more connected team. They stayed together,” said Gobert. “… For us, it’s pretty much the story of our season. It was a great year, but for us to take another step in the playoffs, a lot of things are gonna have to be better.”
Mitchell, despite his compromised ankle, fought his way to a near-triple-double, totaling 39 points, nine assists, and nine rebounds.
Clarkson, after racking up 21 at halftime, went scoreless the rest of the way.
Royce O’Neale added 21, Rudy Gobert had 12 and 10 …
The numbers, though, in a vacuum, are ultimately irrelevant.
This loss, this specific defeat, came down to them not being able to play any defense when they needed to. Their inability to stop Mann was a fitting microcosm of their demise.
His runout dunk with 37.9 seconds to go didn’t count — a foul was called beforehand — but it served as an apt closing statement. The forward, only in the starting lineup because All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard is out with a bad knee, matched Mitchell’s 39 points, but did so an eye-popping 15-of-21 from the field and 7 of 10 from 3.
He was technically Gobert’s responsibility, but given how often the big man had to rotate to the rim to cut off a driver that one of his teammates failed to contain, he was in anti-win situation.
And as a result, the Jazz didn’t win.
“We needed — in those moments — to help each other, and we were a step or two slow on every rotation,” said Conley. “And you can’t be like that on the road in a hostile environment against a team that’s as good as the Clippers.”
No, they couldn’t.
Utah won the first two games of the series before dropping the final four in a row, their goal of an NBA championship once again cut brutally short.
Snyder tried to find some silver lining, noting that he was “incredibly proud of this team,” and pointing out how “When you finish on a loss like this, it’s hard to reflect on what I think was an outstanding year.”
Conley tried to do the same, praising the players who stepped up during adverse times over a challenging season, and revealing that he’d told his teammates to try and cherish what they had done together.
Admirable ideals. But they all acknowledged that going out the way they did, falling apart when they had a chance to extend their season at least one more game, left them ultimately feeling dejected and empty.
“Obviously it’s painful,” said Gobert. “We had a great year, but we felt like we had all the weapons we needed to try to take a shot at the title. It’s painful. But everything is a learning experience. Hopefully we learn from it.”