The first team in the NBA to reach 20 wins wasn’t the plan.
But in getting there by besting the Boston Celtics 122-108 on Tuesday, the Utah Jazz hope they’re building a roadway to destinations beyond the first-round exits yielded from the last two trips to the postseason.
“I told y’all at the beginning of the year: We got bounced out of the first round two years in a row. We’ve got to get past that. That’s it,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said. “Then, from there, we’ll continue to push our goals. Our mind is stuck on the championship. We’re not here to kind of say, ‘Let’s just be in first,’ and get the accolades that come with that.
“We’re trying to win the whole thing, and that’s been the mindset of this team and this group. You see it with our play, you see it with our grit and determination.”
Mitchell certainly embodied all of that in leading the team’s fifth straight victory — and 16th in Utah’s last 17 contests — by scoring a game-high 36 points to go with nine assists, including a stretch of sheer dominance over the last 5 minutes and 25 seconds in which the guard scored 10 of the team’s final 18 points, while dishing dimes for the other eight.Game Recap: Jazz 122, Celtics 108
Led by Joe Ingles’ season-high 24 points, the Jazz supporting cast did its part, too. Rudy Gobert contributed 18 points and 12 rebounds, while Bojan Bogdanovic logged 16 points and eight boards to help Utah improve to 20-5 for the league’s best record, while tying for the best 25-game start in franchise history.
The Jazz accomplished the latest feat without starting point guard Mike Conley (hamstring) against a quality opponent in Boston that was missing Marcus Smart, as it welcomed back star wing Jaylen Brown, who had missed the Celtics’ last two games due to left knee soreness.
With Brown (33 points, eight rebounds) back in the fold, Boston jumped out to a hot start. The Celtics drained their first five shots from distance to start the game, as Brown hit three consecutive 3-pointers. With three minutes left in the first quarter, Boston took a 27-19 lead — its largest of the game — on a Payton Prichard 3-pointer.
“We just didn’t let that impact us,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We started defending better.”
The Celtics’ early advantage would turn out to be short-lived as Utah weathered the early storm to go into intermission up one point as Mitchell and Ingles combined for 23 points in the first half and five assists.
Going into the matchup, the Jazz owned a record of 15-1 when leading at halftime, and they improved it Tuesday to 16-1 by outscoring Boston 74-61 in the second half. Mitchell scored 24 points in the second half on 7 of 11 from the floor and 4 of 7 from 3-point range.Will Utah maintain its grip on the No. 1 spot in the West?
Mitchell has now racked up 30-plus points in three of his last five games, and he’s dished 20 dimes over his last two outings. Since Mitchell came into the league in 2017, the Jazz own a record of 50-12 when he finishes with six assists or more.
“He’s been locked in possession by possession,” Snyder said. “I think his efficiency in pick-and-roll is something he takes great pride in. I thought his ability to get people involved and then pick his spots, particularly when he feels the game and not forcing himself on the game.
“He’s not gonna be satisfied. … I think we forget sometimes that he’s such a young player because really from his rookie year he’s been asked to do so much. So, you put yourself in that situation, and you hold yourself accountable as much as anything, and that’s what he has done.”
But Mitchell wasn’t the only one.Take a look back at Donovan Mitchell’s performance vs. Boston.
With Conley out of action, both Mitchell and Ingles served as Utah’s main ballhandlers against the Celtics. Ingles responded to the extra responsibility with a season-high in scoring, in addition to six assists while knocking down 5 of 11 from 3-point range. Gobert, meanwhile, produced his 22nd double-digit rebound game of 2020-21 while also shooting 8-for-9 overall and blocking three shots.
But even in the midst of the team’s current run of success, the Jazz readily admit to carrying over feelings of disappointment from last season’s disappointing finish in the NBA bubble. Utah led 3-1 in the opening round of the playoffs against the No. 3-seeded Denver Nuggets, before dropping the final three games of the series in an epic duel between Mitchell and Jamal Murray.
One of lesson coming from that was the need to maintain focus at all times.
“I think it was a great learning experience for us. It definitely made us grow as a team,” Gobert said. “I think every struggle, every tough moment in life in general really helps you grow. I think you really embrace them. I really felt like we came back this year with a purpose.
“Like I’ve been saying: there’s still a much higher level that we can reach. There’s still a lot of ways we can get better and better. I really feel like we have a chip on our shoulder, and we need that if we want to do what we’re trying to do this year.”
Utah also needs to continue to find multiple ways to defeat opponents based on the matchups and circumstances presented from night to night. The Jazz entered the matchup Tuesday as the only team in the NBA to rank in the top five in both offensive rating (115.4) and defensive rating (107.0), while also holding the league’s second-best net rating (8.4).
“I think this year compared to other years I’ve been here, we’ve been able to win in different ways,” Ingles said. “We haven’t just won because we’ve shot the ball well. We’ve won on the defensive end. We’ve won with different styles, different guys. I think we’ll keep learning along the way different ways to win, different things to work for. We’ve got a way longer-term goal in mind which keeps us pretty focused.”
Utah’s next slate of games should help in that department, too.
The Jazz face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks at home on Friday, followed by a clash on Saturday against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. From there, Utah takes on the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 15, followed by back-to-back games that Feb. 17 and 19 against the LA Clippers.
The Jazz tip off the following week with games on Feb. 22 and Feb. 24 against the Charlotte Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively.
“It’s been only 25 games. We’ve got plenty more left, and this is a great start,” Mitchell said. “We’d rather be there at the end as opposed to starting out great. This is the first game of a big stretch we’ve got coming up. We’ve got teams that have deep playoff experience, high-level players. We’ve just got to go out there and do what we do.
“It’s not like we’re saying this is a make-or-break stretch for us. But we’ve just got to go in there and continue to play the way we’ve been playing; share the ball, move the ball, defend at a high level, and everything will take care of itself. Because we’re not playing to be ready by February. We’re playing to be ready in March, April, May, June, July, whatever. These are good tests for us. That’s gonna be our biggest thing: just passing each test one by one just to see where we’re at, see what we can build on and things we need to improve on.”
* * *