Never before, at least when it counted the most, has the Jazz catch phrase that defines this team been more evident.
Facing the possibility of losing a second consecutive playoff game and home-court advantage in the process, the Jazz needed contributions from just about every player to avoid the unenviable task of playing a Game 7 on the road. And they got them, bringing to life coach Quin Snyder’s often-repeated line of “The strength of our team is our team.”
Yes, it is.
It’s also the primary reason why the Jazz are in route to Houston to play the Rockets instead of going back to Oklahoma City. With rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell – who else, really? – leading the way, the Jazz pulled together to beat the Thunder 96-91 to close out the best-of-seven series 4-2 on Friday before a delirious sellout crowd at Vivint Smart Arena.
For only the first round, this was a series for the ages, with both teams seemingly expending every last ounce of energy. Simply, this was incredible and highly entertaining.
“Both teams played with such intensity,” Snyder said.
Somehow, even if it was barely, the Jazz found a way to pull off the upset. Good luck rallying the emotions to compete in the first game of their second round series Sunday afternoon against the Rockets, who finished with the best record in the league.
But that all can wait for one day. For now, it is about celebrating a team that lost its best player to free agency in the offseason and wasn’t even expected to make the playoffs.
For all the doubts, along with a roster shake-up in the offseason, the Jazz are headed to the Western Conference semifinals for the second consecutive season.
Thankfully for the Jazz, Mitchell came aboard, needing only one season to surpass anything individually that the departed Gordon Hayward ever did. With his team struggling to score most of the game, Mitchell scored a franchise-best 22 points in the third quarter on his way to finishing with 38 points.
“The things that Donovan did tonight the team needed,” Snyder said. “That’s who he’s been. He’s a team-first guy. Sometimes the team needs a guy who takes things on his shoulder.”
And Mitchell was just a part – albeit a major part – of this game and playoff success. As expected, so were Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles, who were solid in all four playoff games the team won.
Ricky Rubio was right there, too, for much of the series – until a tender hamstring sidelined him after playing only seven minutes in the deciding game. No problem, enter Alec Burks.
The forgotten man in his series, Burks shook off the rust to score 11 points in 17 minutes. Credit him for staying ready.
“We made the right plays,” Burks said, “and everybody played together.”
Snyder pointed to Burks as a living example of the team’s strength that carried it through the entire season. Everybody has a hand in it.
“We don’t win that game without Alec,” he said. “No question about it. He’s good example of what this team has been about.”
How about Derrick Favors? With the Jazz leading by only one point in the final seconds, Favors hit the biggest shot of his NBA career by extending the margin to three points.
After a questionable no-call on a Paul George missed three-point attempt on Oklahoma City’s final possession – did Rudy Gobert foul him? – Mitchell made both free throws to provide the final score.
Add in the play of Royce O’Neal. The undrafted free agent rookie made vital contributions in his limited minutes.
Let’s hear it again, after the game.
“The strength of our team is our team,” said Jonas Jerebko in the locker room.
Different storyline for the Thunder, though. It is pretty much a one-man team, directed by Russell Westbrook.
The reigning NBA MVP tried to win his team into forcing one more game back home. Playing the entire second half, Westbrook hoisted up 43 shots to score 46 points.
Fellow all-star Paul George was an absolute non-factor (five points on 2 of 16 shooting). Former all-star Carmelo Anthony barely did anything, too (seven points).
Almost every time, a complete team will beat a few individuals.