HOUSTON — As reporters cleared out of Ricky Rubio’s locker space following his postgame availability, his teammate Donovan Mitchell walked over to embrace him with a big hug.
“We’ll be better,” Rubio encouraged Mitchell following Utah’s 100-93 elimination loss to Houston in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Mitchell then gathered his things and waited in the hallway of the Toyota Center alongside his mother, Nicole, in silence. His teammates Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale also patiently waited without saying a word as Rockets players Chris Paul and Clint Capela wrapped up their postgame press conference in the media room.
Paul immediately hugged Mitchell on the way out, while asking “where Momma?” until he found Nicole. There was a mutual respect on both ends.
“We knew them well, they knew us well, and we knew it was going to be a hard-fought series,” Paul admitted. “So, it was great to get the win tonight.”
Despite trailing 3-1 entering Game 5’s loss, the Jazz hung close, getting within one point in the final 2:49 of the fourth before late turnovers and missed shots cost them the game.
On a night where Mitchell went 4-for-22 to score 12 points, with six rebounds and five turnovers, he credited his teammates for keeping them in the game despite his individual struggles.
“I can’t say enough about everyone,” Mitchell said. “We were the underdogs, nothing new. Most teams when you go down 2-0 the way we went down 2-0, most teams kind of call it quits.
“We have guys from top to bottom coming in making plays, fighting, competing, yelling and screaming, whatever we’ve gotta do to win and you don’t get that on every team,” he continued. “Being down 3-0 we came out and fought even tonight, we’ve got some dogs on this team and I think that showed on nights like tonight.”
Royce O’Neale not only took on the challenge of guarding Rockets star James Harden, he also finished one point shy of his career-high with 18 points and five rebounds off the bench, while Rubio contributed 17 points with 11 assists. However, Utah couldn’t overcome shooting 37.2 percent as a team and 23.7 percent from 3, on a bunch of open attempts.
“We played hard. There’s things you can control, there’s things you cannot control and the things that we can control we did tonight,” Rubio said. “I got an open 3 to get up one with one minute left and I missed it, but it’s not about that. It’s the whole game.”
Harden and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni both anticipated how tough it would be to close out the Jazz in the series, 4-1, for the second consecutive postseason. Once again, Harden got off to a rough start, going 0-for-7 before making his first field goal on a driving layup at 8:53 in the second, but ended up posting nine of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. Harden also distributed six assists and six rebounds while committing five turnovers and five personal fouls.
“You know that’s what the playoffs are all about,” D’Antoni said. “It’s not playing pretty — everybody knows everybody’s stuff, so you can’t trick them. It’s tough, you got to make big plays. It’s one on one more or less and you got to go after them and you got to guard them.”
Utah trailed by as many as 12 points in the third, but Houston couldn’t pull away with O’Neale keeping the Jazz alive offensively with 10 of his points scored in that period. Houston led 73-69 after a buzzer-beating putback layup by Nene entering the fourth, then sealed the win with that last 8-2 run in the last 2:49. Paul also scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth and averaged 17.4 points per game in the series.
Eric Gordon drilled four triples to end with 15 points, in addition to keying in on Mitchell defensively, while P.J. Tucker scored eight points, nine rebounds with a career-high four blocks.
“Congratulations to the Rockets,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Obviously, I thought both teams really competed, and it wasn’t the prettiest game. Sometimes, that’s the case when you have two teams that really want to win and are playing that way and competing.”
Jae Crowder finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds in his third consecutive game as a starter while Joe Ingles added 11 points with nine assists and six rebounds.14 comments on this story
Before the Jazz boarded the flight to Salt Lake City, Ingles took some time to reflect on the 2018-19 run where Utah finished 50-32 overall to earn a fifth seed, but knows they have to return much better if they want to get to the next level.
“At the end of the day the result was the same, it was 4-1,” Ingles said. “So, it’s something we can do better, but we can go back over that kind of over the summer and it’ll be long and boring but we’ve just got to figure out ways to get better and put ourselves in position to come back in the playoffs and do it all over again.”