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Brad Rock: Jazz season was a success, but not a smash

Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) high five during Game 5 against Houston in Houston on Wednesday, April 24, 2019.
Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) high five during Game 5 against Houston in Houston on Wednesday, April 24, 2019.
Laura Seitz

SALT LAKE CITY — Strip away the emotion, the matchups and meltdowns of another Jazz-Rockets playoff pairing, and there’s this: The Jazz are still losing to Houston in the postseason.

One gut-punch at a time.

For the second straight season, they were Houston’s enabler. The Rockets move on to the conference semifinals, while the Jazz go into summer mode. Last year Houston eliminated the Jazz in the second round. Wednesday’s 100-93 outcome gave the Rockets another 4-1 series verdict.

This raises the question of whether anything good happened to the Jazz since last year, and whether the 2018-19 season ended up a success. Financially, no doubt about it. The Jazz have pitched themselves as a must-see event, selling out all 43 home and playoff games.

Unless you have a ton of high-priced superstars, any team that makes the playoffs is doing well.

That makes the Jazz a moderate success.

They’re bankable, likable and acceptable.

To be a big success would take some off-season maneuvering, which begins right ... about ... now.

Over the last year, the roster stayed practically static. That seemed a wise move when they charged through the second half of the season. But there were no bottom-feeders in the postseason, not a Phoenix or Cleveland in the bunch. Utah might have benefitted from playing someone other than Houston in the first round, but if your goal is to avoid people, you have problems.

So Wednesday’s loss returned the Jazz to the intersection of defeat and disappointment. They made Houston truly worry for only a few minutes in the series. The rest of the time the Rockets knew they had things in hand.

The Jazz now have plenty of time to assess the season. Is a single playoff win enough to make it a good year? Many would say no. The Jazz lost in the first round, after reaching the second round the two previous years. Still, they won 50 regular-season games, second-most since 2009-10. That team included Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap — three All-Stars.

Though the Jazz bowed out of the playoffs early this year, everyone knows the reason. It wasn’t that the Jazz got worse, it’s that they got cornered. Houston was one team the Jazz don’t match up well with. In Game 5 they tried to piggyback on Monday’s stirring home win, in which Donovan Mitchell scored 19 fourth-quarter points. But he made just four of 22 shots Wednesday in Houston, finishing with just 12 points.

They got spirited performances from Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale and Ricky Rubio, but those are occasional answers, not permanent ones.

Both teams suffered torturous shooting for most of the night. Houston star James Harden missed his first seven shots and 10 of his first 12. He clanged a dunk, turned over the ball and looked like the same guy who missed 15 consecutive shots in an earlier game. But unlike Mitchell, he has scoring help that is always at the ready: Chris Paul, Danuel House, PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon and more.

Meanwhile, Harden is a rocket launch ahead of anybody else in the league in scoring.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder can often combat even that kind of talent. He has never looked more the part of the mad scientist than he did in this series, coaching his players to actually play behind Harden to keep him from the step-back 3 and funnel him to mid-range, where his percentage drops. It worked in fair degree throughout the series.

But it didn’t change the end result.

Mitchell’s miss with 31 seconds left was the Jazz’s last chance.

Until then, the Jazz had every intention of extending the series. Right after Monday’s win, a reporter asked Rubio if “you feel like you’re back in the series?” Rubio gave him a flat stare.

“Yeah,” he said. “You don’t think we’re back?”

Not anymore.

Monday the Jazz were intrepid and forceful, optimistic about ultimately overcoming a 3-0 deficit. Forty-eight hours later, nothing had changed.

Except, of course, everything.