SALT LAKE CITY — First things first.
There were scenarios in place Tuesday night that would have sealed the Utah Jazz’s chances of meeting the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the upcoming playoffs rather than the Houston Rockets, a squad Utah doesn’t match up well with.
It might seem counterproductive, but had the Jazz lost to the Denver Nuggets at Vivint Arena, such a scenario would have been put into action. A win by the Houston Rockets over the Oklahoma City Thunder or a Trail Blazers loss to the Los Angeles Lakers a short time after Utah’s game ended would have then set up a series between Portland and the Jazz.
None of those things happened, however. Utah pulled away late to beat the Denver Nuggets 118-108, then the other two games ended in rather heartbreaking fashion for the Jazz. Thunder forward Paul George made a 3-pointer with 1.8 secons left to give Oklahoma City the win over Houston, and then forward Mo Harkless sank a trey with 1.4 seconds to go to lift the Blazers over the Lakers.
The results significantly increase the chances Utah (50-31) will face the Rockets in the first round without homecourt advantage, although there’s still there scenarios where it ends up being Portland. If either the Trail Blazers (52-39) lose to the Sacramento Kings (39-42) on Wednesday night or if Denver (53-28) falls to the Minnesota Timberwolves (36-45), or if both lose, the Jazz will face the Trail Blazers in the first round. Otherwise it will be Houston (53-29).
Regardless, Utah will enter the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. The Jazz will conclude their regular season Wednesday night against the LA Clippers on the road.
“I think everybody understands the importance of the games that are being played,” Mitchell said after Utah watched the Thunder win in the locker room after its game. “It just shows the resiliency of OKC. They wanted it badly, but it doesn’t matter who we play. We’ve got to go out there with the same mindset. The only difference is it’s hotter in Houston than it is in Portland.”
Added Rudy Gobert: “We’ll see how the season ends. No matter who we play, we’re going to be ready.”
But on to the actual game at Vivint Arena, and there were storylines aplenty. During a film session on Monday following the Jazz’s loss on Sunday night to the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah head coach Quin Snyder got after Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert after they played poorly. He expected more from them as the team leaders.
Mitchell and Gobert, who were both infamously drafted by the Nuggets and traded to the Jazz on draft night, responded Tuesday with marvelous performances. Mitchell tied his career high with 46 points, while Gobert was fantastic down the stretch and finished with 18 points.
Utah used a 16-2 run during a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter to pull away in a home regular-season finale that was close from the second quarter on. The victory was the Jazz’s 50th of the season and their 13th in the last 15 games.
“When you have two players like Donovan and Rudy that allow themselves to be coached, you can say sometimes things that are uncomfortable and you can say them in front of the team, and those guys tonight responded,” Snyder said.
Both players felt as though Snyder getting after them was necessary.
“I think we needed that,” Mitchell said. “We both respond when Quin gets after us. It shows that a coach cares, and I appreciate that. I think we all do.”8 comments on this story
Gobert felt it was important for him and Mitchell to react positively to the chastening.
“I think it was good to kind of show the team that if us two are maybe not doing what we are supposed to do, it’s going to be hard for us to win,” he said. “We didn’t take it personally at all. We knew ... and we came out ready to play tonight.”
The two teams were rather even in the shooting statistics, but Utah won the rebounding battle 48-31 and scored 62 points in the paint compared to 46 for Denver.