SALT LAKE CITY — With their season likely on the line, the Utah Jazz’s franchise cornerstones — who have one of the NBA’s most heavily scrutinized partnerships — connected.
The result: A go-ahead alley-oop from Donovan Mitchell to Rudy Gobert that allowed the Jazz to even the series and was the sweetest moment yet in the All-Stars’ occasionally tense five-season tenure as teammates.
“It’s poetic justice in a way,” Gobert told ESPN after Utah’s 100-99 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Saturday’s Game 4. “It’s a play that we’ve made many times. It just happened to be the game-winning play tonight.”
Much of the discussion about the Jazz over the last few years has focused on the dynamic between Gobert and Mitchell. That started when they were the first two NBA players to test positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, after which Mitchell blamed Gobert for infecting him. They didn’t talk for months until just before the Jazz started training in preparation for the bubble.
Mitchell’s passing to Gobert, or lack thereof, and the big man’s displeasure about it had created some friction between them before that point. The infrequency of Mitchell’s passes to Gobert — just 2.7 passes per game this season, according to Second Spectrum data — became a focal point in media coverage of the team while the Jazz were struggling late in the regular season.
So the leaping chest bump Gobert and Mitchell exchanged at half court after the go-ahead dunk was about more than celebrating that play, which was Mitchell’s first game-tying or go-ahead assist to Gobert in any of their 345 games played together, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
It was a cathartic moment.
“Metaphoric on some level,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It feels good. I ain’t going to lie to you,”
Mitchell said, “It feels good, because it’s just like, man, you hear it. I don’t think him and I sit here think there’s anything, but we hear it. It’s good to see that and be able to go out there and do it on a stage like that, but ultimately, those same plays we made throughout the entire game.
“We trust each other, we feel each other and we’re out there continuously making good plays. It felt good. It’s good to trust, that’s all it is.”
As Gobert profanely put it during his postgame interview on TNT, “Man, f— the talk.”
Gobert wasn’t only referring to the discussion of his dynamic with Mitchell. He’s also heard the talk that this chapter in Jazz history could soon be coming to an end, as there have been persistent rumors about Mitchell potentially asking for a trade this summer, Snyder as a candidate for other head coaching jobs and the Jazz potentially shopping Gobert in the trade market.
“I mean, there’s a lot of noise,” said Gobert, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds in the win. “A lot of people are talking about our team, our guys, the future, what can happen, what might not happen, about a lot of different things that at the end of the day for us right now don’t matter. We have a team, we’re 2-2 in the series, and that’s our focus.”
Mitchell finished with 23 points on 7-of-21 shooting, his lowest-scoring outing of the series, and didn’t have any points in the second half until he hit a free throw with 7:24 remaining. But he delivered as the Jazz came back from a four-point deficit in the final 39.6 seconds.
Mitchell followed his own miss with an and-1 putback to pull Utah within a point with 31.2 seconds remaining. After Mavs center Dwight Powell missed a pair of free throws, Mitchell and Gobert ran a pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor. When Powell switched onto Mitchell, putting Dallas defensive stopper Dorian Finney-Smith in the difficult position of trying to defend Gobert from behind as the big man rolled down the paint, Mitchell made the right read and delivered the lob.
It was his seventh assist of the game and first to Gobert.
“My teammates and my coaches trust me,” said Mitchell, who shot only 33% and had a 19-to-12 assist-to-turnover ratio in clutch situations this season. “It hasn’t been the greatest regular season as far as crunch time for me, but I’m not going to sit here and let that affect how we continue to go throughout the rest of the playoffs. The ball’s going to be in my hands, and I’ve got to make the right play.”
The right play with Game 4 — and much more — at stake happened to be a pass to Gobert. The Jazz couldn’t have written a better script.
“Talk is talk. At the end of the day, those guys have a respect for each other, man,” Jazz minority owner Dwyane Wade, the NBA legend who Mitchell considers a mentor, told ESPN. “I just love how we trust each other as a team down the stretch.
“Rudy making those big plays coming from Don was obviously big, but a lot of [the discussion about their relationship] was outside noise, too. It’s just good to see them execute like that and for the two star players on our team to trust each other in that space like that.”