HOUSTON — At the corner of Reality and Hope, the Jazz season ran out of road on Tuesday. Back in Utah, the disappointment was real. But for many, the mood was also this: Welp.
It’s not like this team was thinking trophies in October. Or maybe it was.
“It always hurts. Always hurts at the end,” said forward Jae Crowder. “Especially if you’re not hoisting the trophy at the end of the year. That’s the main goal. That’s it. It’s not about moving to the third round, second round it’s about holding the trophy.”
This season belongs in the books, not for distance — plenty of Jazz teams have gone farther — but for delivery. With star Donovan Mitchell leaving with an ankle injury in the mid-fourth quarter of Tuesday’s 112-102 loss to Houston, and time slipping by, the Jazz cut the deficit to one. Mitchell had scored a torrid 22 points in the third, bringing the Jazz back from the brink.
Even though they didn’t return the series back to Salt Lake for Game 6, the team’s sales and marketing people should be thrilled. They got a gift nobody could have expected. Despite losing their second-round series four games to one, the Jazz prospects looked promising. That’s not something you could say in July when Gordon Hayward went East.
“I think it’s the beginning of an era,” said Crowder.
It wasn’t pressure that got to Mitchell. It was a jammed ankle that took him out, just when crunch time arrived. But he had already carried his team farther than a 21-year-old should. The final loss couldn’t be chalked up to officiating, coaching, fatigue, or even injuries. Blame it on personnel. The Rockets have a good chance to become NBA champions. The league’s likely Most Valuable Player, James Harden, was awful on Tuesday — his coach said he was sick — but it didn’t matter. Chris Paul scored 41 points.
The Jazz will have to settle, this year, for being the Western Conference’s oh-so-cute surprise. They’ve been as likable as a golden retriever. They made it to the second round on, yes, some talented young players. But they also did it via a lot of high-minded thinking. Rather than making excuses, listening to the experts, or wishing they were somewhere else, they zeroed in on what their coach, Quin Snyder, had to say.
He empowered a point guard, Ricky Rubio, whose career in Minnesota had stalled, and put his unheralded draft pick on the fast track. Now even future Hall of Famers such as Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul are applauding Mitchell.
Among Snyder’s other moves was to tell rangy Australian forward Joe Ingles to keep shooting.
That produced a ton of g’days for everyone.
“This is kind of as grateful as I’ve been in the time I’ve been doing this,” Snyder said.
In the end, they got beat by a deep and deadly team on a quest. This happened last year, too. The Jazz encountered title-bound Golden State on its way up. The Rockets’ success is no accident. Right now they have two future Hall of Famers and a slew of other producers. That’s not an indictment on the Jazz’s personnel. It’s just a reality that hit them like a slamming door.
Clearly the Jazz missed the injured Rubio, who was having the best year of his career. At the same time, it’s doubtful he would have made a three-game difference.
Instead of heading into the offseason filled with misgivings, there’s sure to be a feeling of satisfaction, and, yes, hope. Crowder called the ending “a bittersweet feeling” that “at the same time keeps you motivated.” Whether they’ll overtake the Rockets or Warriors atop the Western Conference is iffy, but everyone else has been put on notice.
In one quick season, the Jazz brought Utahns clamoring back. Last year’s team made the playoffs, as if awakening from a coma. But this year’s Jazz might actually have raised the expectations too high. Fervent fans — especially those who had drifted away over the lean years — got a team they could love
“It’s been amazing,” said center Rudy Gobert. “I’m just excited for the future.”
All Tuesday’s game served to do was point out where the Jazz are: a nice team, hoping to become an elite one. But a popular team? It’s already done.