It wasn’t until the Jazz’s lead ballooned to 76-51 with 8:07 left in the third quarter Tuesday night that the sarcastic-but-not-really jokes began in earnest.
“Now I’m worried” was the general gist.
The Jazz, with a 25-point third-quarter advantage against the Clippers in Los Angeles? What could go wrong?
You know how this story ends.
In a season that’s seen Utah blow too many double-digit leads to bother counting anymore (it’s 14 now, by the way), they uncorked the mother of all come-aparts against Paul George & Co., effectively repeating last year’s season-ending Game 6 implosion.
This time, they fell 121-115. It was the team’s fifth consecutive loss overall, it came against an opponent that had itself been beaten five in a row, and this defeat dropped the Jazz into a tie with sixth-place Denver, with six regular-season games remaining.
Donovan Mitchell, who tried to call a timeout the team didn’t have while trailing by four with 10 seconds to play — resulting in a technical foul and loss of possession — didn’t even wait for the full question to be out of the reporter’s mouth postgame before answering that he had zero answers about what went wrong this time.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s the same s---. I don’t know,” he said, his frustration and dejection apparent.
Conversely, Quin Snyder and Rudy Gobert identified plenty of areas where the game went off the rails.
The coach noted that while, yes, the result could have been salvaged if not for the Jazz going an abysmal 17 for 29 at the free-throw line, the game was effectively lost by two specific fourth-quarter deficiencies: guys trying too many times to split double-teams and turning it over instead, and a poor effort on the defensive glass, leading to an abundance of second-chance points.
And indeed, Utah had seven fourth-quarter give-aways (after committing all of nine in the previous three quarters combined), and yielded four offensive rebounds in the final 12 minutes, as the Clippers racked up 10 total and converted them into 15 points.
“If we’re not doing those two things, there’s nothing,” Snyder said. “… Thirty of their 39 points were on those two things in the fourth. So you can say we could have hit some free throws, we could have done this … There’s two things: We’ve got to get bodies on people and rebound, and we’ve got to take care of the ball.”
The center, meanwhile, critiqued the Jazz’s lack of toughness — both mental and physical — and how they repeatedly get taken out of their game so easily by opponents simply turning up the intensity.
“We get disconnected. We stop playing. We lose the values of this team, which is moving the ball,” Gobert said. “And that really affects our defense. It’s like, everything flows — and then it flows the wrong way and we get disconnected more and more and more.”
To his point, the Jazz had 22 assists on 34 baskets through the first three quarters, and just one assist on nine baskets in the fourth.
They devolved into isolation-centric ball, they turned it over too often as a result, and the inevitable byproduct was allowing a parade of transition opportunities the other way.
And at that point, it became a self-perpetuating spiral into immolation. The Clippers make a run, start seizing the momentum, the Jazz start to shrink from the moment, and the next thing they know, the moment is passing them by.
Gobert wants to at least see the Jazz put up more of a fight.
“Nobody hits nobody. We don’t get our hands dirty. We never get our hands dirty,” he said. “We’re a very good basketball team, but I get f---ed up every night, guys are literally beating me up every night — as they should; it’s basketball, it’s a physical game. But we have to get to the point where we do that to the other team, too.”
He included himself in that — noting that he missed five free throws, that he allowed buckets on some possessions he didn’t think he should have, that he got beat to some rebounds, and that those plays had the cumulative effect of deflating the players around him.
Once Mitchell took a breath and took a moment, he, of course, also found plays and trends to lament — his six turnovers, a lack of transition defense, the insufficient effort on the boards.
Oh, and that timeout where there wasn’t one.
“I just didn’t know. And that’s on me — as a leader, you’ve got to know,” he said. “I looked up and saw the one [remaining on the scoreboard] — looking at the wrong f---ing team.”
Yeah, there’s a lot gone wrong at this point.
Part of it is, indeed, the ongoing injury situation — the extended absences of forwards Bojan Bogdanovic and Danuel House; the center depth depleted to the point that veteran Greg Monroe was brought in on a 10-day contract; the guard line taking a hit as well when Trent Forrest caught an inadvertent blow from a flailing Gobert and wound up in the hospital with a concussion.
But another part of it is the increasingly prominent idea that perhaps this Jazz team simply doesn’t have what it takes to end the cycle of disappointment.
Gobert, asked about the parallels between this loss and last year’s Game 6, expressed hopefulness that Utah can yet find its way, but also anger in the interim while wondering how that turnaround will actually manifest itself.
“I mean, it hurts. It hurts, to be honest. I can’t speak for everybody, but for myself, it hurts,” he said. “I’d punch a wall, but what’s that going to do?”
Snyder was asked a similar question, but offered a more pragmatic response.
Yes, it’s easy to connect the dots between that game and this one, but the circumstances and consequences are not, in fact, the same.
For now, there is — however theoretically — still time to craft a different end to the story. Still a chance to get away from the same … well, you know.
“The good thing about this game is it’s not Game 6,” Snyder said. “You can just point to those two things I just talked about and just fix those two things. That’s a question of us focusing on those areas and making them more important, and when we do that, we’ll get a different result. I didn’t see us emotionally fragile — I saw a team that didn’t do the things that, fundamentally, we have to do.”