Dallas • Can the Utah Jazz win a game when the momentum shifts, the tension ratchets up, and the situation gets tight?
They did on Saturday.
With no less than Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on the line.
Despite horrible 3-point shooting all game long, an anonymous first half from Donovan Mitchell, and yet another fourth-quarter swoon that got the American Airlines Center crowd whipped up into a frenzy, the Jazz also got just enough clutch buckets and stops for a 99-93 victory to steal home-court advantage.
Mike Conley drilled a clutch pull-up 20-foot jumper. Royce O’Neale rebounded his own missed layup and finished the extra possession by burying a corner 3. Rudy Gobert swarmed Jalen Brunson in the lane, forcing a tough look that missed.
And so, for now, the Jazz can avoid another conversation about not coming through in the clutch.
“There were some moments when our mental toughness was challenged, and we really responded,” said Quin Snyder.
“I’m just happy to win the game,” added Gobert, who totaled five points, 17 rebounds, and three blocks, and was all over the place defensively. “They had a lot of free throws at the end of the game, and we stayed focused and kept our heads and kept trusting each other.”
Indeed, the Jazz led by as many as 12 points, saw that cut all the way down to 92-91 with 2:12 to play … but hung on at last.
And so, Utah leads the best-of-seven series 1-0, with Game 2 to come Monday night.
Despite Bojan Bogdanovic’s promise that the Jazz had some weapons they’d been saving for the playoffs, he appeared to be the only one not disarmed in the first half — where he scored 20 of his 26 points.
They shot just 17 for 42 overall in the first 24 minutes, and went only 2 for 11 from 3, with the Mavs selling out to stop them behind the arc. They didn’t even hit their first triple until there was just 3:10 remaining before halftime. Mitchell, meanwhile, totaled just two points, three assists, one rebound and one block while shooting 1 for 9, all but swallowed up by the length of Dallas defenders Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock.
“I came out a little too passive, but in the same respect, Bojan was rolling, so I kind of let it go and tried not to force the game,” said Mitchell. “… Came out in the second half ready to go into attack mode.”
That’s an understatement.
He racked up 19 points while playing the entire third period, then contributed 11 more in the fourth — meaning 30 of his 32 points came after halftime.
Still, it ultimately came down to getting stops and making just enough buckets.
Gobert proved his usual imposing self by rotating to the corner to challenge shooters, then recovering to the paint to protect the rim.
“Rudy gets evaluated on a lot of things, sometimes two of them at the same time. The fact that we’ve been making that analysis of a guy who can actually protect the rim and then go out and contest a 3 says a lot about what he’s capable of doing,” said Snyder. “And his ability to do that is central to how we play defense.”
Dallas wound up shooting just 38.2% for the game, and 9 of 32 from 3.
Utah also crucially earned a 63-42 rebounding advantage.
“When they went small — you guys realize that teams go small against us sometimes? — we outrebounded ‘em by 20 rebounds. When teams do go small, [we need] to use our strengths,” Snyder said. “… If we can outrebound teams by 20 rebounds, at some point people are going to have to think a little harder about going small.”
Gobert, asked whether he foresaw opponents no longer going small in such a circumstance, quipped, “Everyone looks small to me.”
Conversely, the hoop looked gigantic to O’Neale on his triple that made it 95-91 with 57.3 seconds to go.
“It was big,” he conceded. “Every day, I keep shooting the ball. Shooters go through slumps, but not thinking about the past … keep thinking that every one I shoot is gonna go in.”
Asked if it helped that the clock was running down and he didn’t have time to overthink it, he replied, “I mean, to be honest, I had it in my head I was gonna shoot anyway.”
That’s the mentality, Snyder said, that made the difference.
“We kept our aggression. That’s key no matter whether you’re executing out of a set or playing out of transition,” he said. “You look at Royce O’Neale’s 3 — he hasn’t made a shot in the game, and the fact that he didn’t hesitate and shot that ball, that’s a mindset that our team has right now.”
They’ll need to keep it.
Dallas was clearly missing both the scoring and playmaking of injured superstar Luka Doncic, who sat out with a calf strain, and who is “day to day,” according to the injury report Mavs coach Jason Kidd gave pregame.
The Jazz will practice at AAC on Sunday, and look to fix the mistakes they made and fine-tune the schemes they deployed in the opener.
And they’ll hope to be even better on Monday night.
“We did our job, we got Game 1, now we gotta go out there and get Game 2,” said Mitchell. “We’re not satisfied with this one.”