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SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell couldn’t stop thinking of the missed chances.
It wasn't his turnover with 8 seconds left in Game 7 that was racing in his mind. It wasn't Mike Conley’s potential series-winning three that had missed by an inch (maybe even less) either. Nor was it the five missed free throws, the missed fouls, or the other countless things that could have changed a 2-point outcome.
No, he was dwelling on all the squandered opportunities that made those so consequential: The 8-second violation near the end of regulation in Game 1, surrendering a 15-point second-half lead in Game 5, not coming out with aggression in Game 6.
"There’s so many things I just feel like we could have done and we didn’t," Mitchell said. "And I think that’s just where the hurt really comes."
Utah lost a 3-1 series lead for the first time in franchise history. No amount of records (and there are more than a few) or historic performances will help Mitchell get over the fact that he feels his team should still be playing.
That’s why, as soon as the game was over, he laid flat on the ground as his hands covered his face. He then turned over and rested his head on folded arms. He was in shock. After everything the Utah Jazz had done right and all the points he had scored, the season was over.
"We shouldn’t have even been in this situation, that’s where a lot of the emotion comes from," Mitchell said. "There were so many things we can go to as a unit and I think that’s what hurts the most."
Tuesday was a new experience for Mitchell and for most of the Jazz. Conley has been in Game 7's before, but not with this team (Conley dropped to 0-4 in series finale games on Tuesday). Jordan Clarkson played minor roles in two Game 7 victories with the Cleveland Cavs in 2018. Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert both played in a Game 7 in 2017 when the Jazz defeated the L.A. Clippers. Ingles scored 12 points in 36 minutes; Gobert fouled out after playing just 13. But for everyone else, Tuesday's game was their time feeling the intensity of a Game 7.
So Mitchell is looking at Tuesday’s loss as a learning experience — a really painful and long-lasting learning experience. But, even then, he can't shake the feeling that it should never have had to come to this.
"We’ve never really been in this situation, it comes with experience as a whole," Mitchell said. "We have guys who have that experience but as a whole, we haven’t been there as a unit and that’s on us. But I really don’t think we should have been in Game 7."
After Game 5, there was an assumption — subconsciously or not — that the series was over, that Denver was done; that’s at least how the Jazz played. Starting from the second half of Game 5 and continuing through the first half of Game 7, the Nuggets were the more focused, more aggressive, more locked-in team. It took eight quarters for the Jazz to match Denver’s new-found intensity. And that, despite Utah coming back from down 19 in Game 7, proved to be too late.
"We lost 4-3, but it tells us that the little details make the difference," Gobert said. "Obviously, it’s the same in any kind of high-level basketball, whether it’s international competition, NBA Playoffs, Game 6, Game 7, those little details matter; and looking at the game tonight, it’s a 2-point game, so it’s maybe one rebound, one loose ball, two free throws. You really realize the great teams are the teams that are going to control those little details and do it over and over and over."
The Jazz didn’t do that for much of the last three games of the series, and that’s why Mitchell couldn’t stop dwelling on all the missed chances. And it will still be dwelling on the team until next season comes around.
"We had multiple opportunities to put them away and they capitalized and they are experienced, they’ve played in Game 7's and in times like this," Mitchell said. "I’ve got to give them credit, but there are certain things that you look back on that we could have definitely capitalized on to not be in this position. But we’ll fix it."