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From 'unsalvageable' to this: A mix of anguish, pride and hope as an unprecedented NBA season comes to a close for the Utah Jazz
Orlando • There was less than a second showing on the clock when the final shot was taken. Donovan Mitchell watched it from the opposite side of the court, his arms raised. Who could say how much of the past year raced through his mind as the ball arc toward the rim, spin around the cylinder and, agonizingly, pop back out.
Mitchell felt the weight of it all, though, as he collapsed to the floor, the Utah Jazz’s 2019-20 season finally finished.
“I didn’t really know what else to do,” Mitchell said after his team’s 80-78 Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. “I was exhausted.”
Mitchell had scored 22 points to help his team rally from 19 down in the elimination game, but there had been so much more to the Jazz’s journey than that.
In the 314 days since the regular season tipped off there had been All-Star debuts for Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert, the positive COVID-19 diagnoses that shut down the NBA on March 11 and caused a locker room rift that some reported was “unsalvageable”. There were months of uncertainty as the global pandemic swept over the country. There were moments of unthinkable pain as black Americans were killed by police, prompting protests across the country and within the NBA. There were seven epic battles between the Jazz and the Nuggets, with Mitchell and Denver guard Jamal Murray setting scoring records as they dueled. There was a 3-1 lead and three chances to advance to the second round.
And then, on the 56th night inside the NBA’s Disney World Bubble, there was nothing left but the end.
“It’s definitely a devastating feeling right now,” said Jazz guard Mike Conley, who had eight points, four rebounds and seven assists on the night. “ It hurts more than any loss I’ve had in my career. So much you sacrificed, so much you gave up to be here, how much these guys fought, how much these guys played for each other. It’s tough to walk off that court and knowing you won’t be on it again until next season, so it’s tough.”
It was from Conley’s left hand that the final shot of the series was taken, and from the veteran’s vantage point, it looked like it was going in.
“I felt like I got a very good look for the moment,” he said. “I was able to get to a spot and pull up and honestly I felt really good about it and was sure it was going in. And when it didn’t, that’s what made it so much more devastating, as soon as it left my hand, I held my follow-through and I thought for sure it was going in.”
When it didn’t, Mitchell fell to the floor and lay there until Murray helped him back up and embraced him. The two young guards had combined for four 50-point performances in the series, and 475 points in all—the most combined points by two opponents in a playoff series.
“We shouldn’t have even been in this situation, that’s where a lot of the emotion comes from,” Mitchell said. “There were so many things we can go to as a unit and I think that’s what hurts the most. We can go to my 8-second violation in Game 1; we can go to blowing a 15-point game in Game 5; We can go to not matching their level in Game 6. But yeah, there are so many things I just feel like we could have done and we didn’t.”
In the decisive Game 7, the Jazz came out flat and fell behind by 19 points in the first half. Behind Mitchell and Gobert, though, Utah came roaring back.
“Our defense,” Gobert (19 points, 18 rebounds, two blocks) said of the turnaround. “I think we were playing pretty good defense in the first half, but we really turned it up in the second half. We were able to grind our way back into this game.”
With the game tied late, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic hit a hook shot to give Denver its 80-78 advantage with under 20 seconds to play. The Jazz put the ball in Mitchell’s hands after that, but Denver guard Gary Harris knocked it loose and started a fast break the other way. Only after Denver’s Torrey Craig had missed what would have been a game-sealing layup did the ball find itself back to Conley who fired up the final heave of the season.
“It was a crazy series,” said Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson. “Those last minutes, that was a crazy series of plays, playoff basketball. Game 7, you know it’s going to come close. We were down early, a lot of fight, continue to keep playing, kept competing, made big plays. Everybody was locked in trying to help us win, so we got a good look at the end, Mike (Conley) had a great shot, I thought it was dropping.”
The Jazz will spend the offseason regretting missed opportunities to close out the Nuggets, and wondering what might have been had forward Bojan Bogdanovic been healthy and able to play. With Bogdanovic sidelined following wrist surgery, the Jazz were a heavy underdog entering the series, something the team took note of.
“I want to say I’m proud of everybody in this locker room because to be honest with you,” Mitchell said. “Nobody picked us to be in this situation, we had pictures up of what every reporter, every single one, had Nuggets in four, five, six. One or two had it in seven. We saw it, we used it as fuel. And to do that without our second-leading scorer, guys stepped up, guys made plays.”
Bogdanovic’s return next season will be an instant boon for the Jazz. Even as they dealt with the hurt of his season ending, Mitchell and Gobert were already looking forward to getting back on the basketball court.
“We went from being an “unsalvageable” team three months ago to this, and I don’t think anybody outside of us expected that,” Mitchell said. “I’m happy with the way we played, obviously not the result. Look man, like, we’ve got things that we know we can fix and like I said we felt like we kind of gave (away) situations when we had control of the series and we let it get out of hand. … This won’t happen again.”
Gobert, too, expressed optimism for the future.
“I think we want more,” he said. “The goal wasn’t to lose in the First Round obviously, but I’m proud of the way we handled everything that happened within our team. I don’t think a lot of teams would be able to go through that. I’m talking about especially Donovan and myself, being able to come back and play the way we played even though we came up short. I think it’s very encouraging for the future and obviously it’s painful because you want to win and we will. I have no doubt that we will, but I think we started something and now we’re just going to have to finish it.”
Gobert said the Jazz would leave the bubble better for the experience.
“There’s been a lot of adversity,” he said. “Not just for me but for all of us as a team, for the rest of the world too, it’s been some interesting few months. I’m really proud of the way we’ve been able to handle that as a team, as human beings.
“A few months ago, I probably wasn’t in the right space mentally to go out and play with my team, but we found a way to make it happen and be able to have my teammates’ support through these last few months, especially since we’re in the bubble and after everything that happened, it was really something that lifted me up and I really tried to give everything I could for this team. We came up short, but I have no doubt that we’re going to win a championship. Might be painful right now but I guarantee that all of us will come back better, I’m going to come back better and we’re going to do anything we can that’s in our power to be a better team next year.”