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While entertaining, losing a winnable Game 7 and first-round series will haunt Jazzland for a long while

SHARE While entertaining, losing a winnable Game 7 and first-round series will haunt Jazzland for a long while
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Utah Jazz’s Joe Ingles (2) and Donovan Mitchell, bottom right, sit on the floor after their 80-78 loss to the Denver Nuggets during an NBA first round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — One backcourt violation. Holding on to a 15-point lead in the second half of Game 5. Just a little less spin on a 3-pointer at the buzzer of Game 7.

That’s how close the Utah Jazz were to closing out a first-round series they weren’t expected to win and advancing to the Western Conference semifinals.

Jazz-Nuggets playoff schedule

(3) Denver Nuggets

vs. (6) Utah Jazz

Game 1

Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Game 2

Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Game 3

Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Game 4

Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Game 5

Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Game 6

Nuggets 119, Jazz 107
Game 7

Nuggets 80, Jazz 78, Nuggets win series 4-3

Oh yeah, and Jamal Murray not playing out of his mind for three straight games.

Unfortunately for Utah, Donovan Mitchell’s Game 1 turnover late in regulation cost them that game, Murray going berserk as the Jazz went cold in Game 5 (and again in Game 6) squandered that opportunity, and Mike Conley’s oh-so-close-but-so-far-away buzzer-beating shot — one the team somehow ended up with after a wild sequence that swirled in and around the rim before heartbreakingly popping out — proved to be the final blow.

The Jazz had their playoff hopes burst in the bubble in a grind-it-out, defensive slugfest of a Game 7.

Instead of a video game shooting contest like the previous six games, they’re headed home for who knows how long after falling by a surprising score of 80-78, which some might have predicted would be how many points Mitchell and Murray would put up.

After a surprisingly sluggish start, the Jazz finally showed up to the final game of a thoroughly entertaining first-round series, featuring a never-before-seen mano-a-mano shootout between Mitchell and Murray. But this is a series that will haunt players and fans on the west side of the Rockies for years.

Should’ve.

Could’ve.

Would’ve.

Didn’t.

“We shouldn’t have even been in this situation,” Mitchell lamented after the first-round exit. “We can go to my eight-second violation in Game 1. We can go to losing the 15-point lead in Game 5. Not matching their level in Game 6. There are so many things we could have done, and we didn’t. We kind of eased off the gas.”

It didn’t even look like the Jazz had any gas in them for about the first two-and-a-half quarters of this elimination bout.

While falling behind by as many as 19, the Jazz played like a team that needed to be rescued on the side of the road by a towing company. The wheels came off. The will didn’t seem to be there, either. Mitchell had almost as many turnovers (five) in the first half as he did points (seven).

This was the same Mitchell who’d put together games with 57, 51 and 44 points while carrying the Jazz to this juncture.

More than ever, however, the Jazz were playing like a team that was missing one of its key cogs and offensive weapons. While some wondered how different things might have been had sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic been in the bubble and vented away frustration on social media — or perhaps by screaming into pillows on their couches — something finally clicked.

The Jazz finally seemed to heed the message Jazz coach Quin Snyder sternly gave them during the halftime break, which was then shown on the ABC telecast.

“Be the more aggressive team,” Snyder pleaded with his team. “Be the more aggressive team on both ends!”

Utah hasn’t had too many Game 7s in the four decades of Jazz basketball, but there have been a few elimination games. Though this ultimately went the way of the loss to the Lakers in the 1988 Western Conference semifinals and the even more painful defeat to the Sonics in Seattle back in 1996, an unexpected second-half surge gave fans hope that this might be more like the thrilling seven-game victories over the Clippers in 2017, the unforgettable clutch win in Houston in 2007, and the second-round squeaker over Denver in 1994.

The comeback was ignited by Mitchell, of course.

The third-year All-Star kicked his game into a higher gear, and suddenly the desperate team that was trailing by double digits and was playing a sloppy, frantic, frazzled and disorganized style of basketball followed suit.

Murray gave the Nuggets their biggest lead out of the locker room with a 3-pointer, but Mitchell went on a 9-0 tear to trim it down to 10. Denver called a timeout, but that didn’t contain the Jazz for long.

Sparked by Spida, the Jazz chipped away at the lead throughout the rest of the third quarter.

Heading into the final 12 minutes, with a series against the Clippers or a flight home at stake, it was only a five-point difference. It was suddenly the exciting Game 7 that this series deserved.

The Jazz were even on track to build on their own lead as Conley and Rudy Gobert took turns with Mitchell making big plays, eventually putting Utah up 68-65 shortly after seizing their first lead since the opening minutes.

Playing as tuckered and worn out as two heavyweights in the 12th round, this series for the ages all came down to the final bizarre sequence. The Jazz had the ball in Mitchell’s hands with less than 15 seconds remaining and trailing by two. We’ll never know what his go-to move was going to be because Denver’s Gary Harris tapped the ball away from him from behind.

Strangely, the Nuggets went on a fast break and a missed layup provided one last bit of drama. The Stifle Tower hauled in a rebound, found Conley and the Jazz point guard released a 3-pointer from the elbow just before time expired.

Mitchell thought it was in. He raised his arms. The ball thought it was in, too. It started to work its way into the net. Cruel fate thought otherwise, and the ball popped out of the cylinder.

Game, series and season over.

The Jazz had never lost a playoff series in a dozen previous attempts after winning three of the first four games. Only 11 teams in NBA history had blown a 3-1 lead before — yes, including the Warriors. Though there were some huge blowout victories, even bigger offensive performances by Mitchell and some big-time play by Gobert and Conley, this series will rank up there with Jazz postseason memories that sting to remember.

Don’t be surprised if some team members and fans quarantine themselves until they get over an ample amount of would’ves, could’ves and should’ves.