This is as grateful as I’ve been in the time that I’ve been doing this to be part of a team that’s had the resiliency and the toughness to compete the way they have all year. – Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder
HOUSTON — From agony to ecstasy, pain to joy, the Utah Jazz’s 2017-18 season has been a roller-coaster ride.
After starting the year 19-28, the Jazz went on a 29-6 run to finish the season as a fifth seed, which was the second best ending in the league behind Houston’s 32-5 mark.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr even described the Jazz’s Cinderella turnaround as “one of the best stories of the year in the NBA” ahead of their April matchup.
But now that fairy-tale run has ended after a hard-fought affair.
The Houston Rockets eliminated the Jazz with a 112-102 Game 5 victory at Toyota Center Tuesday. Houston won the Western Conference semifinals series, 4-1.
"This is as grateful as I've been in the time that I've been doing this to be part of a team that's had the resiliency and the toughness to compete the way they have all year,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “Houston was terrific.”
Utah entered the year with little expectations after losing All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics through free agency in the offseason.
December was a rough month for the squad as they faced the NBA’s toughest schedule with a grocery list of injuries, but then things quickly changed as rookie guard Donovan Mitchell developed as a star and serious Rookie of the Year contender. Rudy Gobert also returned from two knee injuries to make a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year, while Quin Snyder used his smarts on the sidelines to enter the mix for Coach of the Year award.
In the first-round playoff series, Mitchell used a record-breaking performance to lead the Jazz past the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games before falling to top-ranked Houston in the second round.
Starting floor general Ricky Rubio missed the entire Rockets series with a left hamstring strain. Key reserve Dante Exum couldn’t play Game 5, either, with the same injury. Already at a disadvantage in terms of talent, the Jazz certainly couldn’t keep up with a short-handed lineup as well.
Utah jumped to an 11-7 lead in the beginning but trailed 21-16 to end the first quarter after shooting 33.3 percent. P.J. Tucker nailed a 3-pointer to end the second quarter to give Houston a 54-46 lead at the break.
Coming out of halftime, the Rockets built an 11-point lead until Mitchell decided to put the Jazz on his back. He scored 22 of his team-high 24 points in the third to give Utah a 78-75 edge. Mitchell singlehandedly outscored the Rockets 22-21 in the period.
But midway through the fourth, Mitchell had to be helped to the locker room with left foot soreness. He collapsed to the floor after a turnover at 7:13 and wouldn’t return as he could only watch his mentor and friend Chris Paul power the Rockets to victory with 20 of his 41 points in the fourth. Paul also dished out 10 assists and grabbed seven rebounds with no turnovers for the first time in NBA history to advance to the conference finals for the first time of his 13-year career.
"Just tried to do whatever it took to win," Paul said.
The X-rays performed on Mitchell were negative, but he will undergo further tests in Salt Lake City. After the game, he limped to the postgame press conference with a boot on his foot.
“It was similar to what happened in Game 1 against OKC where I did the same thing. It was the same feeling,” Mitchell said. “Even though I was out, I can’t just sit in the back.
“I wanted to be there with my teammates throughout the entire thing, and it’s tough sitting there watching, but they fought and competed, and I’m unhappy with the result but I’m happy with the effort from everybody as a whole.”
Tucker finished with a playoff career-high 19 points and six rebounds for the Rockets. James Harden went 7 for 22 with 18 points, four assists and four rebounds.
Alec Burks was solid again for the Jazz off the bench with 22 points and five assists, while Royce O’Neale added 17 points and three rebounds. Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert added 12 apiece, with Gobert swatting five shots.
Even after a tough loss, the Jazz have no reason to hang their heads as they competed until the final buzzer, even when folks doubted them.
“It’s been amazing,” Gobert said. “Last summer, no one had us making the playoffs to having a rough start in the year with injuries and people started to think about us losing on purpose to get a draft pick to fighting for a spot in the Western Conference Finals.
“I’m so proud of what we accomplished as a team, as a group and as a staff. I’m just excited for the future.”