SALT LAKE CITY — It seemed fitting that in the end, in a do-or-die playoff game, Quin Snyder did what he has had to do all season: He patched together a lineup from his collection of no-name players and made a game of it, this time on the home floor of the best team in the NBA.
Only five points separated the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets with seven minutes left in the game Tuesday, when Donovan Mitchell — who scored 22 points in the third quarter — was injured. They went on to lose the game by 10 to end the season, but afterward opposing coaches and players joined a growing chorus around the league in praising the upstart Jazz. The Jazz outdid themselves this season — 48 wins, a playoff berth, advancement to the second round with a young, rebuilt and battered team.
Well-coached and well-managed teams overachieve and vice versa. The Thunder, Wizards, Bucks and Timberwolves failed to meet expectations for their level of talent. The Celtics, Spurs, Jazz and Warriors found ways to win despite an inordinate number of injuries, many of them to their best players. All of those teams advanced to the playoffs, and one of them — and probably two — will play in the conference finals.
The hard truth is that, other than Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, there isn’t a player on the Jazz roster that would start for most of the teams in the upper half of the standings. They have no All-Stars on the roster (although Mitchell would qualify if the team were chosen now). Their lone All-Star dumped them last summer when Gordon Hayward signed with the Celtics.
That was a big blow, and then things went south from there when the season started. Gobert missed 26 games; Rodney Hood missed 15 games before he was traded; Joe Johnson, a playoff hero last season, missed 21 games before being traded. Thabo Sefolosha missed much of the season with a knee injury. Dante Exum missed most of the season with a shoulder injury.
Somehow, Snyder pulled it together with the considerable help of general manager Dennis Lindsey. Another mark of a good coach and a good GM is being able to adjust on the fly. The Jazz were 19-28 on Jan. 22. They were 29-6 from then on.
Lindsey had to start over to rebuild the team and, given all the injuries, the job continued throughout the season. The Jazz ended the 2017-18 season with seven players who weren’t with them a year ago.
Individually, they were unremarkable. Ricky Rubio, the starting point guard, had spent six so-so seasons in Minnesota before he was acquired by the Jazz in a trade for a 2018 first-round pick. Jae Crowder had already been with three teams in seven years — not counting the Texas Legends of the G League — before being traded to the Jazz this season in the Johnson deal.
Royce O’Neale joined the Jazz as an undrafted rookie who also served time in the G League, Jonas Jerebko came to the Jazz after spending seven years with Eastern Conference teams. Ekpe Udoh bounced around the league for five years, went to Europe for two years, then joined the Jazz, his fourth NBA team. Tony Bradley, the 28th pick in the 2017 draft, was traded to the Jazz and spent time in the G League.
Lindsey saw them as players who could fill a role in the Jazz’s style of play.
Then the playoffs came and Lindsey and Snyder had to do more improvising. The Jazz lost Rubio, their starting point guard, for the entire second round. They lost Exum for Game 5. They gave Crowder his first start of the year; they also started O’Neale, an undrafted rookie. Raul Neto came off the bench. They actually took the lead in the third quarter, but when Mitchell limped off the court in the fourth quarter, their fate was sealed.
“Unbelievable,” Rockets guard James Harden said afterward, referring to the Jazz. “ The sky is the limit for them.”
Mitchell, who averaged 24 points per game in the postseason, was the league’s most surprising player on the league's most surprising team. He is already a better player than Hayward, which takes the sting out of losing the franchise player. Mitchell and his teammates have provided high hopes for the future in a season that seemed doomed before it started last summer with the loss of Hayward.