The Jazz were crushing Oklahoma City in the third quarter Wednesday night when the local television producers posted a billboard with the schedule of Games 6 and 7, for the sponsor’s sake.
I just laughed and resumed compiling my rankings of the Jazz’s all-time most impressive playoff series performances. Then the Jazz proceeded to lose a 25-point lead within eight minutes, playing their way off that list and potentially onto another — the team’s most disappointing first-round playoff series defeats.
That sequence of events makes Friday’s Game 6 at Vivint Smart Home Arena one of the biggest moments in franchise history. The worst losses occur in games that seemingly are won, and that’s exponentially more true of a series close-out opportunity such as Wednesday’s Game 5.
The Jazz will be forgiven if they win Game 6. All they will have lost is the chance to rest and prepare for Game 1 of a series vs. Houston that they won’t win anyway.
If they lose Friday to OKC, though? Wow. Not much hope would exist for a Game 7 victory. The Jazz then would have to live with the Game 5 collapse in a 107-99 loss that wouldn’t entirely ruin their season but certainly would make the summer less enjoyable.
I really couldn’t picture the Jazz winning Game 5, but I also never imagined them losing that way. Even with Rudy Gobert on the bench via a referee’s call on a phantom foul early in the third period, the Jazz should have maintained some fraction of their 25-point lead and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals against Houston. Now, who knows?
Using any checkpoint you like over the past nine months, the Jazz would have taken this position — a chance to end a playoff series at home. They had lost Gordon Hayward to free agency in July. They were 19-28 in January. They were fighting for a playoff spot in early April. Just being assured of a playing a Game 7 in the first round would have been more than acceptable at any of those stages.
But not now. Not with OKC having come within about two minutes of giving up before staging Wednesday’s comeback and bringing the series back to Vivint.
BAD ENDINGS The Jazz’s biggest disappointments in first-round playoff series (the NBA used a best-of-five format before 2003)
1987 • Losing to Golden State as a No. 4 seed after jumping out to a 2-0 lead
1989 • Being swept by Golden State as a No. 2 seed
1993 • Losing a 2-1 lead over Seattle as a No. 6 seed
1995 • Losing Game 5 at home to Houston as a No. 3 seed
2001 • Losing Game 5 at home to Dallas as a No. 4 seed
2012 • Being swept by San Antonio as a No. 8 seed
One thing I’ve learned in 30-plus years of studying this stuff is momentum within a playoff series is a myth. One game rarely carries over into the next. That’s a good thing for the Jazz, although recent history also shows there’s no guarantee of winning Game 6 at home.
The Jazz had won Games 4 and 5 vs. the Los Angeles Clippers but faded badly in the second half of Game 6 last April. They trailed by 14 points late in the game before rallying and having a chance to force overtime, with Joe Johnson missing a 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
A more encouraging history lesson comes from 10 years ago, after Houston beat the Jazz by 27 points in Game 5 to extend the series. The Jazz took a 19-point lead in the second quarter in Game 6, only to lose nearly all of that advantage by halftime — thanks to Tracy McGrady’s 28-point outburst. But then Ronnie Brewer held McGrady scoreless in the third quarter and the Jazz won by 22.
Friday’s game is sure to be another wild adventure. The Jazz impressively played through tough times in Games 3 and 4 at home, having trailed by 12 and eight points in second quarters. They’ll undoubtedly have to respond again to adversity in Game 6, when their goals will include keeping Gobert on the court, preventing Westbrook from going crazy and, most important, not reminding anyone about how they seemingly had won the series in five games.