LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Only minutes after Donovan Mitchell was lying face down on the court inside AdventHealth Arena, he plopped himself down in front of a video camera, his eyes still red from tears he shed after his Utah Jazz saw their season end with a heartbreaking 80-78 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of their first-round NBA playoff series Tuesday night.
But while Mitchell said he was devastated about the way things slipped away from the Jazz after they not only held a 3-1 lead in this series but led by 15 points in the second half of Game 5, he was proud that his team survived everything it has gone through over the past few months.
He also was ready to get back to work.
“We’re ready to fight through anything,” said Mitchell, who had 22 points in Game 7 but shot just 9-for-22 and also had nine turnovers, including one with less than 10 seconds remaining. “That’s always been the case. It’s a character thing to come back the way we did. We’re ready to compete through anything. For myself … I can’t lie to you, I was surprised by certain little things that I’ve done and accomplished. But it’s nothing I haven’t worked on. There were criticisms of what I could do on the offensive and defensive end, and I feel like I’ve taken a step in the right direction.
“This isn’t the last of it. This is me scratching the surface. I know what I can do, how hard I’ve worked, how hard this team has worked. This won’t be the end of it. That’s what’s fueling me. This ain’t the end. This is just the beginning. I’m ready to go hoop again right now. I think we all are. This is just the beginning.”
It was fitting that the Jazz’s season ended in a Game 7 that came down the absolute last second. The final sequence saw Nuggets guard Gary Harris poke the ball away from Mitchell with 8.4 seconds left, only for Denver’s Torrey Craig to miss a potential game-clinching layup at the other end, allowing Jazz guard Mike Conley one last shot to win the series — only for his 3-point shot to go halfway down before rimming out.
As it did, Mitchell — who became one of four players to score at least 50 points twice in a series, along with Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Denver’s Jamal Murray, who also did so in this series — collapsed in a heap on the court.
“To be honest, I [was] in shock,” Mitchell said with a shake of his head, describing what was going through it in that moment. “That was it. You work so hard to get to a point that we got to, and we were this close. We were down, we came back, and fought and clawed, and to be that close … that hurt.
“I didn’t know what else to do. I was exhausted. I just kinda laid there … that s— sucks. This will be on my mind for a long time.”
It’s been an exhausting six months for Utah, going all the way back to that March night in Oklahoma City when the NBA universe came grinding to a halt after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Mitchell did too, a short time later, and by the end of the evening, the NBA season had been suspended.
Since then, so much has happened in the world — including the NBA restarting its season inside the league’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort, which almost came to an end last week when the players chose not to play in the wake of the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Mitchell said he was happy with how he’s been able to use his platform to push for the change he wants to see in the world, and said he hopes that as the playoffs continue, the NBA, and the players who are still playing inside the bubble, will continue to do the same.
“The biggest thing is continuing to push and use your voice,” he said. “At the end of the day, we came down here for a reason. Obviously to win a championship, but also to continue the message. We stopped playing and continued to play because we wanted to continue to preach our message. I’m very happy with the way things went as far as being able to come back on the floor and us and the NBA and owners agreeing on certain things. I hope as these playoffs and everyone watches we continue to push for what is really needed in this world, man.
“I feel like I’ve used my voice in the best way possible, and I’m going to continue to use my voice back home. I implore everyone here — they’ve been doing a great job — to continue to push. The more these games escalate and get closer to the Finals, I hope guys continue to use their voice because people are listening and things are starting to turn, and we have to keep going.”
The Jazz, though, had plenty of their own internal divides to deal with in the wake of not only Gobert and Mitchell testing positive for COVID-19, but also second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic missing the bubble entirely because of wrist surgery.
Still, Utah arguably should have won this series, having blown leads in both Games 1 and 5, and with Game 7 not being decided until the final buzzer sounded.
All of that, coupled with everything Utah went through to get to this point, made the loss all the more difficult for everyone involved to accept.
“This game tonight was one of the toughest losses that I’ve been involved with,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We’ve gone many levels [with] what this team has been through since we were in Oklahoma City, and the season was stopped. What we went through over a period of months, to have this group come back together here in Orlando, and just to see the competitiveness, the unselfishness, a team that really came together and grew and I wish we would have had a chance to keep playing. I think that’s the thing that hurts the most right now.”
The hurt was etched all over Mitchell’s face postgame, after his late turnover helped cost Utah a chance to at least send the game to overtime, if not win it. It was an unfortunate ending to a wonderful series for him personally, but it also just became one of many things for him to think about that could’ve gone differently and allowed the Jazz to move on to face the LA Clippers in the second round.
“We shouldn’t have even been in this situation,” Mitchell said. “That’s where a lot of the emotions come from. There are so many things we can go to as a unit. I think that’s what hurts the most. We can go to my 8-second violation in Game 1, we can go to blowing a 15-point lead in Game 5, we can go to not matching their level in Game 6 … but yeah. There’s so many things I feel like we could’ve did, and we didn’t. I think that’s where the hurt really comes.
“I just didn’t think we should be in Game 7. We had multiple opportunities to put them away, and they capitalized, and they are experienced, they have played in Game 7s and times like this, and I have to give them credit. But there’s certain things that you look back on and we could’ve definitely capitalized to not be in this position. But we’ll fix it.”
Still, Mitchell said the growth the team showed internally from where it was back in the spring was something to be proud of.
“We went from being an unsalvageable team about three months ago to this,” Mitchell said. “And I don’t think anybody outside of us expected that.”
Gobert, meanwhile, was immense for the Jazz, finishing with 19 points, 18 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in 39 minutes. He said he was thankful that his teammates stood by him after all that’s happened over the past few months and declared that this is just one stop on Utah’s path to winning a championship.
“A lot of adversity, not just for me, but all of us,” Gobert said, when asked what the past six months have been like for him. “As a team, for the world too. It’s been an interesting few months. I’m proud of the way we handled it as a team, as human beings.
“A few months ago I wasn’t in the right space mentally to go out and play with my team, but we found a way to make it happen. To have my teammates support through the last few months since the bubble and everything that happened really lifted me up.
“I gave everything I could for this team. We came up short, but I have no doubt we are going to win a championship.”