SALT LAKE CITY — See you next year.
Donovan Mitchell’s clapback to Oklahoma City fans, as he left the court following Game 5, held up after all. He walked the walk, a star in his element, with 38 points in the Jazz’s 96-91 win in Game 6.
It’s a fair bet no one will be caught napping now on the Jazz.
Now comes the chance to prove they truly are better off without Gordon Hayward. One win would do it, because they were swept in the second round last year by Golden State.
Houston, we have contact.
Friday at Vivint Arena, the Jazz didn’t make their first-round series look easy, but it wasn’t all that close, either. They were never in danger of elimination. Next up are the Rockets, the team with the best record in the league.
This could be a classic setup, a team that, as the regular season waned, wasn’t sure to make the playoffs, vs. a team with the NBA’s best record. But the Jazz no longer have the luxury of sneaking up on people, their story growing daily. It’s hard to keep a low profile when Kevin Durant, the Golden State star, tells reporters, “I know from personal experience how good that Utah team is.”
Does he ever.
The Jazz beat Golden State by 19, 30 and 40 points this year.
The result of Friday’s game was an exclamation point on the entire series against OKC. A team beat a collection of brands. So the national love is back on track following Wednesday’s detour.
This collection of stories is too good to resist. It’s hard to imagine who outside Oklahoma wouldn’t be entertained by the Jazz saga. A point guard from Spain, who took an RV tour through Canyonlands so he could see what the team’s alternate uniforms were about. A center from France, whose utterance “We’ll be fine” is now a meme. A forward from Australia who has the least intimidating nickname ever: Slow-Mo. A rookie from America who might one day own the country. And a power forward from Atlanta who speaks softly but carries a big stick.
All after Gordon Hayward passive-aggressively abandoned ship.
Last time out, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors drew five fouls apiece, and thus spent crucial time on the bench.
“One thing I’ve told our team the whole season, and particularly in the playoffs, you’re not going to be given anything, don’t ask for anything, don’t expect anything,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
The officials largely let them play on Friday.
But there’s one thing Jazz fans can expect: a big effort from their favorite team. They held off Russell Westbrook’s 46-point onslaught. In the closing moments, the Thunder got five shots in one possession.
Nothing went in.
As many foul problems as the Jazz had on Wednesday, that didn’t appear early on Friday. They had other things to worry about. For one, the Jazz lost Ricky Rubio in the first quarter with a hamstring injury.
But if the Jazz have shown anything this year, it’s resiliency. They played through a 26-game absence by Rudy Gobert.
“It’s been a physical series,” Snyder said. “I’ve been asked about it a lot. I think both teams have handled themselves very well. You just have two teams there that are competing their tails off.”
While it was still physical, there wasn’t the kind of hair-trigger officiating that plagued the Jazz in Game 5.
But with both teams shooting around 40 percent in the first half, that left the door open for a game decided on defense and physicality. It certainly wasn’t free-throw shooting. The Jazz made just 12 of 23, OKC just 7 of 13.
In this series, looking pretty hasn’t usually been on the menu.
The Jazz are quickly becoming a mature, battle-tested team. At the same time, OKC showed more fight than it should have after falling behind 3-1.
Shortly after that came the other non-revelation: Mitchell is not a rookie. He made the Jazz’s first 10 points of the second half, making two layups and two 3-pointers to put his team up 51-46.
It was a display of a star player in his prime. Except of course he hasn’t hit his prime.