On paper, the Utah Jazz should be devastated right now. Their season, by raw result, was a disappointment. A team with championship aspirations lost a first-round series that it led three games to one. A 19-point comeback fizzled as a Mike Conley 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer. The enduring image of the series will forever be a heartbroken Donovan Mitchell, lying face-first on the court, being consoled by Jamal Murray moments after their legendary seven-game duel finally came to a close. Their season ended in literal tears, yet the undeniable tone of their post-game press conferences was not sadness. It was pride.
"We want more," Rudy Gobert told reporters after Game 7, according to the Salt Lake Tribune's Andy Larsen. "The goal isn't to lose in the first round. But we're proud of how we handled this, I don't think a lot of teams would have been able to do that. I'm talking specifically about Donovan and myself."
Had the season ended in Oklahoma City in March, there may not have been any more "Donovan and myself." Mitchell admitted in March that he needed time to cool off after Gobert's flippant attitude toward the coronavirus ground the season to a halt and possibly infected him with the deadly disease. The reports were far less kind. Their relationship didn't "appear salvageable" to one source that spoke with The Athletic's Sam Amick and Tony Jones. Long-simmering tensions between the two were about to boil over.
But together they stood Tuesday, willing the Jazz into a game they had absolutely no business winning. Mitchell, only a year after shooting 32 percent from the field in a first-round loss to Houston, averaged 36 points per game in one of the most impressive individual performances across an entire series in NBA history. Gobert, months removed from trade rumors, kept the Jazz alive late with 10 points and an astonishing 12 rebounds in the fourth quarter alone. His defense held Denver to only 30 second-half points. The two Utah superstars relished the moment, flexing after big plays and leaving their hearts (and in Mitchell's case, body) on the floor. What the virus seemingly broke off of the court, the gravity of Game 7 repaired on it.
"I'd go to war with any one of these guys in the locker room," Mitchell said after the game. That, ostensibly, includes Gobert, but broadly, it encompasses Utah's entire roster of misfit toys. Almost every Jazz player benefited from the Orlando experience in some tangible way.
Georges Niang never played consistent minutes before Bojan Bogdanovic went down. He went on to make 41 percent of his 3-pointers in the Denver series. Juwan Morgan, a 6-foot-8 rookie, got to try his hand at defending Nikola Jokic. After shuttling between roles all season, Joe Ingles finally managed to strike the balance between shooter and playmaker Utah needed him to find offensively. And then there's Conley.
The missed buzzer-beater is the more memorable moment, but the far more important play came less than a minute earlier. Trailing by two with 47.5 seconds to play, Conley found Gobert for the alley-oop that nearly forced overtime:
It was the encapsulation of Conley's entire first season with the Jazz. A lifelong point guard, Conley struggled to the worst season of his career watching Mitchell dribble. Having spent the majority of his career alongside the ground-bound Marc Gasol, he never quite gelled with the more vertically inclined Rudy Gobert ... until arriving in the bubble. On the biggest play of the season, Conley turned a secondary action into the sort of alley-oop he failed to generate from October through March. At the moment of truth, the Jazz finally made sense. They fit together as the team Dennis Lindsey intended when he acquired Conley last June.
There are still kinks to work out. Utah still has six starters for five spots ... and one of the worst benches in basketball beyond it. The Jazz's defense outside of Gobert needs to improve. Their shot-selection could use some work, and their guards need to get to the rim more often. The aging curve won't be their friend with Conley, Ingles and Bogdanovic all in their 30s. But these are workable issues, the sort that only get to matter when the big questions have been answered.
And for the first time in this era of Jazz basketball, those questions have been answered definitively. Is Mitchell the sort of superstar capable of carrying an offense through the playoffs? He just became the fourth player to ever score 50 points twice in the same series. Can Gobert stay on the floor when it counts? He was the best player on the floor when it counted, and while certain matchups may still present problems, he just thrived in a series against Jokic, arguably the best perimeter center in basketball.
Can this core group coexist? There should be no more doubts. Utah won the minutes Conley and Mitchell shared in the postseason. The team fell in line behind a Mitchell-Gobert duo that could have fractured permanently, but instead played the best shared basketball of its existence. The Jazz overcame their patient zero status in a global pandemic, a seemingly divided locker room and an injury to their second-leading scorer to come a couple of bounces away from the second round. Win or lose, that's an achievement worth taking pride in.
"We went from being an unsalvageable team three months ago to this," Mitchell told reporters in the aftermath of Utah's season-ending defeat. If three months were all it took to overcome the structural flaws this team spent all season fighting, just imagine what they can do with an entire offseason. It makes the final sentiment of that answer all the more ominous to Utah's Western Conference competitors next season. Mitchell was steadfast. "This won't happen again."