Playoff stage proving to be no problem for Donovan Mitchell

NBA.com Global on Apr 19, 2018 05:57 PM
Playoff stage proving to be no problem for Donovan Mitchell
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell celebrates after the Jazz defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

OKLAHOMA CITY — Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Russell Westbrook hauled big-boy reputations and 221 games of playoff experience into a tight fourth quarter at home against the Jazz. Based purely on that, if nothing else, the possibilities along with the scales seemed tilted in their favor Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time).

And when the buzzer sounded and the outcome was decided and fans rubbed their disbelieving eyes, those Oklahoma City Three found themselves on the bad side of the 102-95 score, not only losing Game 2 but being collectively outscored 13-2 in the fourth by Donovan Mitchell, who just wrapped up his second career playoff game.

This Western Conference first-round series is tied at one apiece because the Jazz revealed themselves for who they are, and in a big way. They’re a dogged defensive team, perhaps the league’s best, and they’re led almost exclusively by a kid, in NBA years anyway, although Mitchell never really looked like a rookie from the time he first suited up.

He’s playing a beefy role, the kind that rookies don’t normally do or get because they lack the ability, wisdom and quite simply aren’t put in that position by their coach. Those rules don’t apply to Mitchell, especially when the game gets tense. His number is called more than a hotline and that hasn’t changed even here, in the postseason and when matched against the reigning MVP in Westbrook.

“We’ve given him that respect all season,” said Joe Ingles, “and there’s no reason to take it from him now.”

Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring this season with 20 points and played 33 minutes a night. Only a handful of rookies in NBA history have led a playoff team in scoring, most of those are in the Hall. Utah made him the team’s lead singer almost instantly, partly because he proved himself right away, but also by necessity. After losing Gordon Hayward to free agency, nobody on the club brought the goods to wear that big a backpack. And when Rodney Hood was dealt at midseason, the Jazz lost their primary No. 2 option as well.

None of it mattered to Donovan or affected his flow. He won the dunk contest during All-Star Weekend yet also shot a respectable 34 percent from deep. He’ll be in the running for Rookie of the Year, and while Ben Simmons of the Sixers will probably win that award, Mitchell has pole position for Rookie of the Playoffs, especially after Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time).

Strangely enough, as the fourth quarter began, Mitchell had an uneven game. He missed all seven of his three-pointers, didn’t attempt a first-half free throw and admittedly found himself drifting at times against OKC.

“There was a point where I stopped being aggressive,” he said. “I felt I left them off the hook, to be honest.”

That’s where his maturity and poise perked up. Normally these situations, where the intensity doubles, tend to freeze rookies, and yet it motivated Mitchell instead. He played the final 11 minutes of the quarter and helped the Jazz pull away, at first gradually, and then for good, finishing with 28 points (making eight of nine free throws in the second half) and six rebounds.

In the final two minutes, he isolated on one of the NBA’s top defensive players, but George was helpless after Mitchell executed a spin move and finger-rolled a layup.

“I had to change up,” said Mitchell. “My mindset was to go back to being aggressive.”

The other unusual sight that involved Mitchell: On a handful of occasions during timeouts and after the whistle, he lectured his teammates: Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert, didn’t matter. It was further proof how a veteran team is showing respect to a rookie and allowing him to grow into a leader.

“We’re all giving advice to each other on the floor,” Mitchell said. “That’s what we are as a team. Everyone’s engaged and giving you information, telling you what needs to be done, and what needs to be changed. That’s what our team is all about.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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