Donovan Mitchell came alive Monday night just in time to prolong the Utah Jazz's season in a 107-91 Game 4 win. Without his 19-point fourth quarter, they do not roll over the Houston Rockets 31-12 in those 12 minutes. They do not stave off a first-round sweep.
They do not see a Game 5.
And yet, Mitchell's fourth-quarter detonation isn't merely significant because Utah won. It matters because he busted out of a series-long rut, and because the Jazz were in the game at all, and because, most importantly, he had help.
That is the prevailing lesson from this win. The Jazz offered a brief glimpse into what they can do when Mitchell doesn't need to go at it alone from start to finish against a switching defense.
Jae Crowder went boom to begin the game, pouring in 14 points during the first quarter, including Utah's first nine. His scorching-hot touch didn't hold all night, but he came up with a couple of huge third-quarter buckets and finished with 23 points.
"You know, forget me," Mitchell told TNT's Allie LaForce after the game. "Jae Crowder played his ass off. We've all been struggling with the shot all series. He came ready to play, and we followed that. He's the heart and soul of our team, our defense, our aggression."
Ricky Rubio was all over the place, on both sides of the floor. He coughed up a few possessions, committed two sigh-worthy fouls on James Harden and shot 1-of-7 from three-point range but also put consistent pressure on Houston's interior defense and was critical, for the most part, to Utah's help-reliant scheme at the other end. His 11 assists were huge to the Jazz's half-court survival.
Royce O'Neale didn't provide much of an offensive punch. Both of his made threes came during a back-and-forth third quarter, but he was 3-of-9 from the field overall.
Still, he made Harden work in head-to-head situations on defense, and Utah's Derrick Favors-at-the-5 arrangements wouldn't have fared as well without him pitching in on the glass (11 rebounds). The Jazz were a team-high plus-18 with O'Neale on the floor.
Favors himself hung tough at both ends. He was tidy around the rim and didn't get played off the court when Houston ran PJ Tucker at center. Rudy Gobert's game will be dissected to no end. He logged under 25 minutes and barely played in the final frame. But he preserved the Jazz's defensive integrity early on. Harden missed a few floaters and resorted to living off step-back threes largely because of him.
Mitchell needed every bit of that help to set the stage for his 11th-hour rescue mission. He shot 5-of-14 from the floor through the first three quarters and short-circuited too many of his own drives, seemingly playing into his thus-far-troubling postseason resume:
His struggles were exacerbated by Joe Ingles' own. He can't buy a three in this series (33.3 percent), and it shows. He attempted just four shots in Game 4 and continued to look out of sorts when making plays off the dribble:
Overcoming Mitchell's early warts and Ingles' offensive furlough probably doesn't mean much to the Jazz's immediate outlook. They're still down 3-1 in the series and working against history. No NBA team has come back to advance after falling into a 3-0 hole.
It also doesn't help that Houston beat itself in so many ways. The Jazz defense was more connected amid the chaos of Harden's dribble penetration and step-backs, but the Rockets misfired on more than their fair share of bunnies. They shot just 33.3 percent on two-pointers and 1-of-9 on corner threes and still won the long-range battle by 18 points.
This is not a sustainable model. The Rockets will at the very least shoot better inside the arc and won't lose a game in which they win the three-point war so handedly. They are 36-10 on the year when draining five or more treys than their opponent. The bench will play better.
And to that end, the Jazz did not discover something within this core they can lean on when mapping out the bigger picture. If anything, the methods by which they survived before Mitchell's bonkers fourth quarter only reinforced how desperate they are for a viable No. 2, and how fragile their margin for error remains without one.
Crowder will not play entire games on a heat check. Rubio will not always find pathways to the rim as open, draw as many fouls or, by extension, be able to so easily overshadow 1-of-7 duds from behind the three-point line.
The Rockets will live with both of them doing damage and making shots. They are open by design:
It says a lot about the fragility of the Jazz that they can have someone rivaling No. 2 status, and defenses will still have the personnel to spare on Mitchell. Crowder is not the answer to Utah's search for another off-the-dribble scorer. A more aggressive Ingles isn't, either.
Rubio ranked second on the team in pull-up attempts per game during the regular season, which is a problem. The Jazz's half-court offense routinely bogged down without Mitchell in the game and has become even more dependent on him in the playoffs.
Of the three other players averaging at least one pull-up jumper per game, Rubio again leads the field...with 2.5. Mitchell is attempting more than twice as many shots on drives as the next guy, and even as he's gone through the motions, Utah's offensive rating drops by 22.6 points when he's catching a breather.
The Jazz can navigate their limitations during the regular season. For the second straight year, they're finding out the playoffs are a different beast. They need someone else with an elite floor game to properly counter emphasis on half-court matchups and strategies and to create more elbow room for Mitchell, who is not enjoying nearly as many open looks as he did during the regular season.
Utah has the flexibility to make something happen over the offseason. Waiving non-guaranteed salaries for Favors and Raul Neto opens up max room and perhaps the right to get face time with Kemba Walker.
Keep Favors, and the Jazz can still get to more than $16 million in room. That's enough to explore the well of second-tier options (Bojan Bogdanovic, Nikola Mirotic) and the possibility of adding a point guard with a more reliable outside touch (Patrick Beverley). Utah should become a primary Danilo Gallinari destination if the Los Angeles Clippers are looking to offload salary and create a second max spot.
The point of this scheming and plotting and relative wondering: The Jazz's future is still worth spilling optimism. That shouldn't be lost if they flame out in five or six games. The Rockets are a bad pull for them, and Gobert, despite wild protests to the contrary, is not matchup-proof. These are concerns, not death knells.
Other teams are much further behind the eight-ball. The Jazz have two genuine cornerstones in Gobert and Mitchell. Both might be superstars. Gobert is easily at that level versus 25 teams, and Mitchell is on the fast track. His postseason output is used as a punchline, but he's a killer by sophomore standards.
Mitchell finished second in crunch-time usage rate during the regular season. His true shooting percentage failed to crack 48, but that's hardly a surprise. He's a 22-year-old off-guard ferrying the burden of a superstar floor general.
Inefficiency is part of that grind. Mitchell will get better, and even the most entrenched stars need help. He already acts like the face of a contender, a tough-to-quantify quality that cannot be undersold:
So much of Mitchell's future is still up in the air. A 31-point explosion in response to a potential first-round sweep doesn't prove anything we didn't already know. He is worth the high expectations set before him and must be judged against the bar of someone who can carry a contender.
Utah just needs to give him that contender to carry first.