We got more to do after this one. We’ve got plenty more to do. —Joe Ingles
SALT LAKE CITY — A rare pleasant exchange occurred near midcourt four months ago at Vivint Arena, where three NBA veterans surrounded a 21-year-old rookie.
After the Oklahoma City Thunder’s final regular-season victory against the Utah Jazz on Dec. 23, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony stayed to offer encouragement to first-year guard Donovan Mitchell.
Little did they know, the rookie guard would be sending the Big Three packing after their first-round playoff series on Friday night.
Mitchell went off for 22 of his 38 points in the third quarter of Game 6, breaking Gordon Hayward’s franchise record for most points in a quarter during a playoff game to help the Jazz close out OKC, 96-91.
Utah won the series, 4-2, advancing to the second round for the second straight year where the Houston Rockets await this Sunday at 1:30 p.m. MDT.
Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP, didn’t go down without a fight, though. He went off for 46 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to keep the Thunder lingering all the way until the end with a clutch triple with 1:28 left in regulation, bringing OKC within one, 92-91.
Westbrook also lit up the Jazz for 45 points in Game 5 on Wednesday in OKC, but his latest valiant effort wasn’t enough against the deeper lineup that closed the game with a midrange shot from Derrick Favors at 1:08 followed by a strong defensive stand in the waning seconds.
Favors would finish the game with 13 points and eight rebounds. Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles both added 12 points, with Gobert grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking three shots.
Steven Adams was OKC’s next most productive player with 19 points and 16 rebounds, as the Thunder were held to 39.8 percent shooting for the night.
On the opening possession, Mitchell drained a corner trey to excite the crowd but the Jazz struggled to find a groove offensively, starting 38.9 percent from the field.
Midway through the first quarter, starting Jazz floor general Ricky Rubio injured his left hamstring and wouldn’t return after playing seven minutes. Alec Burks received extended minutes in his absence as the Jazz trailed 22-18 after 12 minutes.
Both teams were stagnant with no flow to the game early in the second quarter as fans struggled to get engaged. Players were once again chippy in the heat of the battle with Gobert picking up a technical foul at 8:34 for excessive yapping. Jae Crowder and George came face-to-face at one point following an aggressive sequence at the 6:01 mark.
Mitchell crossed over Westbrook to score on a nifty scooping, left-handed layup for his 10th point of the half to help Utah close the second quarter on a 13-4 run, after trailing by nine. Ingles also hit back-to-back triples during that pivotal run with the teams entering the locker room knotted at 41.
However, the Jazz shot just 39 percent as a team while holding Oklahoma City to 40.9 percent in the first half. Westbrook posted 15 points, five rebounds and three assists in one of his better first halves of the series, while shooting 7 for 15.
Mitchell picked up where he left off in the third quarter, scoring Utah’s first 10 points. He knocked down a pair of threes and two layups, going head-to-head Westbrook.
Mitchell’s 3-pointer at 6:33 gave Utah its biggest lead, 62-52 as the Thunder needed a full timeout to cool down the rookie.
Westbrook didn’t back down from the challenge, posting 20 points in the third to Mitchell’s 22 points with OKC down by eight.
Then in the fourth, things were still intense, going down to the wire as the rookie would lead his team to the next round against his former idols.
Chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” filled Vivint Arena as Mitchell hugged his teammates after the big performance.
“It’s one of the best groups of guys I’ve ever been with,” Ingles said. “We play for each other. We play for these guys.”
“We got more to do after this one,” he added. “We’ve got plenty more to do.”