Under the weather and visibly tired, James Harden still happily complimented the Utah Jazz’s future while sitting at the podium after Game 5. He had shot under 40 percent from the field against the grueling Jazz defense, and he had seen their star rookie pop off for several torrent quarters against them. With Utah finally dispatched for good, Harden had nothing bad to say.
“They’re unbelievable,” Harden told reporters, “especially since no one expected them to be in the situation that they are now. The sky’s the limit for them.”
Harden’s right that he and anyone else never would have expected for the Utah Jazz to be downright obnoxious in the Western Conference semifinals, not even one year after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Hayward had every right to leave, and he’s in a fantastic situation with the Celtics. Utah’s resiliency made sure that departure didn’t sink them into mediocrity, along with one perfect draft pick that has given them new life.
Consider that resiliency, a defining quality for this franchise. On Jan. 22, they lost to the lowly Atlanta Hawks and fell to 19-28 on the season. It was easy to rule them out at that point, despite injuries to Rudy Gobert that crippled their identity. The injuries had hurt, but teams that are nine games under .500 and several games out of the Western Conference playoffs often don’t rally more than halfway into the season.
From that moment, Utah won 21 of their next 23 games while finishing the season 29-6. It was an absurd finish to the season, especially for a team whose preseason over-under was 38.5 games. But there was never a doubt for the Jazz.
Even in Game 5, until Chris Paul’s blistering fourth quarter explosion assured a Houston Rockets’ win, the Jazz fought on. They had missed Ricky Rubio all series and lost Dante Exum in the previous matchup, and Donovan Mitchell exited in the fourth quarter with foot soreness. The Jazz still only lost 112-102, frustrating Harden throughout and scoring better than could be expected from a team so limited.
As Harden said afterwards, this team has an enormous upside headed into the future. They won a playoff series for the second straight year and now have an offseason to how much Mitchell can add to his already sensational game. As far as losing teams go, you can’t be positioned much better.
Mitchell has unlocked the rest of the team
Mitchell’s 24 points in Game 5 showed his wide array of unstoppable skills that he’s developed over the season. He didn’t start with all them this season, but his studious approach to basketball has allowed him to blossom. Literally, some of these scoop shots and tricky finishes weren’t even in his repertoire before he added them at rates quicker than any Jazz development coaches could have expected. As I wrote earlier this series:
You may have heard this coming story referenced by SB Nation’s Seerat Sohi in February. Mitchell was primarily a two-footed finisher coming out of college, and the Jazz coaching staff gave him a video showing 12 different moves — using one foot, then the other, and so on — around the basket that he should learn. They thought he would work on it all season. Instead, Mitchell showed up to training camp with several of them already in his bag. He shocked trainers at how quickly he would add one, then another, then another.
It’s even more telling how he did it. With his laptop at the gym, Mitchell watched each example and practiced them slowly. Once he felt comfortable, he sped them up. Then he added a single defender. Then he used it in a practice setting. After mastering one, it was on to the next.
There is unlimited praise that can be heaped on Mitchell’s sensational rookie campaign, but it’s also important to note that it wouldn’t have been possible without the franchise around him.
Gobert is the likely NBA Defensive Player of the Year, though we won’t know for another month. He’s a game-changing force on that end, both 7’2 tall and boasting a 7’9 wingspan that makes him more adept at covering the entire paint — no matter how many opposing players are in it — than anyone in the league. With Gobert, the Jazz were the top defense in the league. Their 96.8 defensive rating since Gobert’s second return on Jan. 22 was a full four-and-a-half points better than the next best defense, and the same as the difference between the No. 2 and the No. 12 teams.
Alec Burks looked alive in this series, and Exum had flashes, too. Royce O’Neale is a solid three-and-D player who went undrafted three years ago and who the Jazz unearthed from Europe. If the team wasn’t fun and international enough already, baby-faced Rubio turned into a more mature-and-bearded signal caller for Utah this season. One fact of life: everyone loves Rubio.
Utah’s present has been a terrorizing defensive team, one that could wall off the paint with one player (Gobert) and allow excellent man defenders to then do work on the perimeter. They made it nearly impossible for any Rocket to get to the rim while Clint Capela was on the floor, and forced them into taking way more mid-range shots and floaters in the painted area than they’re used to. Houston’s a great team, and they ultimately adjusted, but not everyone has their personnel.
Thanks to Mitchell, the future could be that same defensive base with so much more on the other end. Mitchell looks like a self-made stick of dynamite, and who knows how high they can soar with him. Their biggest offseason question involves Derrick Favors, whether Utah wants to continue sticking with the two-big lineup or to move on in hopes a philosophy change can bring about something even sweeter. I like league-wide diversity, so I hope for the former, but Utah’s decision will be a hotly debated one for sure.
One thing that isn’t hotly debated: Utah’s season may be over, but it’s a great time to be a Jazz fan.