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SALT LAKE CITY — At least Donovan Mitchell was true to his word.
The All-Star guard said ahead of Saturday’s Christmas nightcap that it didn’t matter who was suiting up for Dallas, playing on Christmas was still special.
As the clock hit zero, Mitchell threw the ball high in the air in a show of emotion to celebrate the Jazz’s 120-116 win over the Mavericks Saturday at Vivint Arena.
“It’s one step shy from the playoffs,” Mitchell said. “I mean, everybody’s excited. Everybody’s locked in on your game. There’s only five of them.”
Moments before Mitchell’s celebratory toss, a similar one occurred during the run of play; that one, though, wasn’t intentional. As the Mavericks tried to put together a late comeback, Frank Ntilikina rose up for a 3-pointer. On the shot attempt, he lost control of the ball on the way up and ended up pushing it high into the air. And that’s when things got weird.
Ntilikina caught the ball and went right up for a floater. The shot counted, but it shouldn’t have.
Fans immediately started motioning the traveling sign, Mitchell pleaded his case with the officials, and the Jazz coaching staff looked dumbfounded (and also a bit upset). Everyone knew Ntilikina wasn’t allowed to touch the ball except for the three people that mattered.
This play ? pic.twitter.com/SKy72b0enm
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 26, 2021
The play had some ramifications in some parts of southern Nevada (the Jazz, before the Mavs got hit with a COVID outbreak, were a 5.5-point favorite — Ntilikina’s floater made it a 4-point victory), but outside of that it was meaningless play.
Such an obvious gaffe was appropriate for such a game. Fans might not have gotten to see Luka Doncic playing for Dallas; but no fear, official Tony Brothers stepped into the spotlight.
The Jazz shot 37 free throws and the Mavericks shot 35; the 72 free throws was the most free throws combined in a game this season. It was a whistle-happy crew — that included three-second calls, technicals, and even confirming what appeared to be a clear mistake on a foul call on Hassan Whiteside after he seemed to have jumped completely vertical.
Since there were no silver bells to celebrate Christmas with on the court, the officiating crew figured silver whistles were the next best thing — same color and they make a noise, so … close enough?
It also showed the frantic nature of the game. Make no mistake, the Christmas nightcap was weird.
Utah trailed by 16 in the first quarter to a COVID-stricken team that featured Brandon Knight, George King, Ntilikina and Charlie Brown (at least that name was appropriate for the day). Some of those guys weren’t even NBA players last week; that really shouldn’t happen.
”Sometimes it’s a tougher game, to be honest, because you don’t really know what’s gonna happen,” Mitchell said. “When Luka is out there you kind of know where it’s going.”
Jalen Brunson scorched the Jazz for 27 points, filling in for Doncic, and Kristaps Porzingis added his own 27 points by virtue of getting to the line 13 times.
And as odd as some of the foul calls were, Utah fouled too much. The fouls allowed the Mavericks to push out to a big lead in the first quarter when the Jazz looked to still be sleeping off some Christmas fun, and they kept Utah from putting the game away much earlier than the final seconds.
“Tonight, we reached down too much and we bailed them out,” said Rudy Gobert, who had a relatively quiet 10-point, 11-rebound night. “Instead of them taking tough shots, we send them to the line.”
Bojan Bogdanovic, who had 25 points, and Mike Conley, who finished with 22 points, each had a key shot down the stretch to make it a merry end to the night for the home team.
But how strange of a night was it? Consider this: Jordan Clarkson was 4 of 13 for 12 points but finished with a plus-22. Mitchell, meanwhile, had his ninth 30-point game of the season and was minus-18.
“Sheesh,” Mitchell said, upon seeing that.
Mitchell left the game for a brief period in the first half due to a tightened lower back. He soon returned but appeared to be in some discomfort during his drives to the basket. He said he was “all right” after the game.
He’s battled through much worse. And with how important the Christmas game is to him, he wasn’t going sit out this one — no matter how strange it was.
“It’s truly a blessing. I’m having fun,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m having fun with something that I’ve wanted to do as a kid.”