We’re going to enjoy this one, but at the same time, we have two good games coming up. —Donovan Mitchell
LOS ANGELES — There was a midcourt handshake between Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell and legendary comedian Eddie Murphy during halftime.
Actor Michael Rapaport also enjoyed the Jazz versus Los Angeles Lakers game from a courtside seat in Staples Center, sporting a pair of Mitchell’s exclusive, limited-edition Stance Rookie of the Year socks.
Other stars such as Carl Weathers, best known as “Apollo Creed” from the Rocky series, and Alfonso Ribeiro — widely identified as “Carlton Banks” from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air show — were also in the house.
But even among a who’s who list of celebrities, it was Mitchell and the Jazz who were doing the entertaining Sunday as Utah won its fifth straight game, 112-97, to clinch a playoff spot for the second consecutive season after many people counted them out.
Mitchell finished with 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists as the No. 4 Jazz put themselves in position to finish no lower than the seventh seed in the Western Conference with just two games remaining.
“Donovan Mitchell, Rookie of the Year,” Rapaport told the Deseret News. “No disrespect to Ben Simmons, but you know you ain’t a true blue rookie. Donovan, true blue rookie, under the radar, came, saw, conquered. Donovan Mitchell is the Rookie of the Year!”
As the regular season nears its end, Los Angeles was playing without Kyle Kuzma (sprained left ankle), Lonzo Ball (left knee contusion), Brandon Ingram (concussion protocol), Isaiah Thomas (right hip surgery) and Loul Deng (sprained left ankle).
The Jazz didn’t even announce that Ricky Rubio was available to play until roughly 30 minutes ahead of the tipoff as he suffered left hamstring soreness.
From the opening tip, the Jazz stayed focused, though, and jumped out to a 19-4 lead and never looked back, leading by as many as 22 points during the contest. The team then locked in defensively in the second half, holding Los Angeles to 39.8 percent shooting from the field.
“The season to this point, what this group of guys has done, as far as being nine games below .500, dealing with a lot of adversity and change,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “More than anything, I’m just really proud of not just their effort tonight, because tonight was not an easy game, but over the course of the season.”
Jazz players certainly had a reason to rejoice in the locker room after the win as the playoffs seemed to be an insurmountable feat back in January when the team fell to 19-28 after a loss to Atlanta.
Since that loss to the Hawks, the Jazz have won 28 of their last 33 games.
So, immediately following the victory, Jazz forward Joe Ingles mocked reporters for doubting the squad as center Rudy Gobert tweeted, “Shoutout to Everyone that counted us out!! #ontothenextone #weonlygettingstarted”
Gobert then told reporters that the accomplishment means a lot.
“We worked really hard as a team and as a organization to get to this point and we’re all excited but it’s only the beginning,” said Gobert, who scored four points with six rebounds.
Ingles ended with 22 points and 10 assists for the Jazz, Jae Crowder added 18 points off the bench and Royce O’Neale contributed 15 points and five rebounds in 24 minutes.
Josh Hart led the Lakers with 25 points, Tyler Ennis scored 22 points and Julius Randle finished with 17 points and seven rebounds.
“This is a very good team,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton. “Obviously, their record, what it has been speaks for itself over the last few months. For us, that was kind of the challenge to the guys.”
Even with all the attention and star-studded fans paying attention to the game in L.A., for Utah, it was all about locking up that playoff spot. Nothing else mattered.
The Jazz (47-33) will return home to face the Golden State Warriors Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Vivint Arena.
“It’s awesome,” Mitchell said. “It’s a great feeling to have that, but at the same time, we have two more games left and we want to stay where we are.
“We’re going to enjoy this one, but at the same time, we have two good games coming up,” he added. “We have Golden State and Portland coming up, so we’re focused and ready for these next two games.”