Mitchell Goes Off then Goes Down as Jazz Lose Series to Houston

May 8th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

Despite losing their second-round series to the Houston Rockets four games to one, Donovan Mitchell (45) bowed out with a roar rather than a whimper, scoring 22 points in the third quarter and giving his team a lead before having to leave the game with a hurt knee. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Story of the Game

Twice in two years the Utah Jazz have faced the number one overall seed in the NBA Playoffs in the Conference Semi-Finals. Today’s 112 – 102 loss to the Houston Rockets means they have twice bowed out against that challenge. But nothing about tonight’s game was old or tired. Instead, this game was about two superstar guards, one legendary veteran and one rookie perhaps a legend in the making, both providing the NBA with something gloriously new.

The Jazz entered this deciding Game 5 hobbled. Ricky Rubio missed the entire series with a left hamstring injury, and last game Dante Exum joined him on the bench with the same ailment. Derrick Favors has played the last few games on a tender ankle. When a fifth seed is that banged up, already down three games to one, and on the road, it makes sense that the league’s best regular-season team might expect them to lay down and quit.

Not the Utah Jazz.

Through the first 22 minutes of the game, the team with less talent and worse health hung with the Rockets, keeping the game tied at 43. A veteran superstar for Houston then decided to take the game in hand, and it wasn’t presumptive MVP James Harden. Chris Paul, Houston’s daring new addition in the off-season, drilled two of the Rockets’s three three-point shots in the final two minutes of the first half, catalyzing an 11 to three run that gave the home team an eight-point halftime lead.

But Utah was within striking distance. They just needed an offensive lift.

Enter Donovan Mitchell. The 21-year-old had never looked like a rookie until the series against the Rockets, where the combination of skill and intensity, at times, finally appeared too much for the poised young man to handle. But the Jazz coaching staff has been lauding Mitchell’s incredible ability to learn all season. He learned through the first four games of the series. Now, with the season on the line, he had enough of being the student. 

So he started teaching the Rockets. The lesson? A career-high tying 22 points in the third quarter… of an elimination game on the road. All but the first two of these points came in that pivotal third quarter:

Superstars are made in the playoffs, and Mitchell took this game in hand and yanked it away from Paul and Harden, giving his team a three point lead entering the fourth quarter.

In a chance knock of knees that was awful for all basketball fans, those in Utah in particular, Mitchell soon after left the game not to return after a collision with Harden. Meanwhile, it just so happens that the young maestro’s mentor was wearing Rockets’s red, and after 85 playoff games and never reaching a Conference Final, Chris Paul was done waiting. 

Paul clawed back nearly every point Mitchell had created, scoring a magnificent 20 points in the closing quarter. At 33-years-old, no player on the court had as much motivation to win this game as Paul, and he did exactly that, putting up the greatest playoff effort of his Hall of Fame career:  a playoff career high 41 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds on only 22 shots, including an unbelievable eight of 10 from three. 

Utah bled every drop of talent from their depleted roster, to the point of marshaling 39 combined points from Alec Burks and Royce O’Neale. But Paul wasn’t losing this game. And so the Rockets move on, as expected, though not without a hobbled Mitchell and his team of upstarts offering up everything they had.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Donovan Mitchell (24 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 threes, 4 free throws)

Mitchell limps away from his first playoff experience having played 11 games and averaged 24 points, six rebounds, four assists, and a steal and a half. How many other players in NBA history can claim that statistical profile over that many games as a rookie in the playoffs? None. It’s never been done before. In those 11 playoff games, Mitchell met or exceed his career high from the regular season in rebounds three times and in assists twice. In Round 1, he scored 38 points to close out Russell Westbrook. In deciding games, he TWICE scored 22 in a single quarter. There is no debating whether the Utah Jazz have a superstar. None.

Secondary Stars: Alec Burks (22 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 3 threes, 5 free throws) and Royce O’Neale (17 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 three, 4 free throws)

There isn’t a better story from the series loss to Houston than Burks. In the absence of Ricky Rubio, he not only re-entered the lineup but likely revitalized his career. He scored in double figures in five playoff games, including games of 22 points and five assists as well as 17 points and six assists. He ended up being Utah’s fourth leading scorer against the Rockets.

While Mitchell’s name has been written across the sky in fire this season, O’Neale has at the very least been etched in stone as a significant NBA contributor for the rest of his career. After being one of the best bench defenders in the league during the regular season, he took Rubio’s starting role against an elite NBA squad in playoff mode and more than held his own. At the season’s start, it would have been long odds whether O’Neale would score 17 points in two games all year. He did in two of the last three games against Houston. The Jazz turned Joe Ingles from a fringe NBA talent into a quality starter. O’Neale looks like he may be on the same trajectory – and, like Mitchell, it’s worth remembering he’s ending his rookie season.

Secret Star: Rudy Gobert (12 points, 9 rebounds, 1 steal, 5 blocks, +2)

This series was difficult across the board for the Jazz but perhaps hardest of all for Gobert. Entering Game 5, Gobert was in the unfamiliar position of having the worst plus-minus on the Jazz in the series. While he didn’t dominate today, he did for the first time match Clint Capela’s impact in the game, including out-rebounding him nine to five. He was the only Jazz player with a positive plus-minus tonight. Gobert is immensely proud and, like Mitchell, is certain to focus on ways to improve upon his performance in the playoffs. Look for him to obsess about Houston switching Harden and Paul onto him repeatedly without fear throughout this series. It will be interesting to see what he’s added to his game next season because of that thorn in his psyche.

Stats of the Game

76 percent – Three point shooting by Paul (eight of 10) and PJ Tucker (five of seven), who was magnificent in this series. Those two players made three more threes than the entire Jazz squad.

34 – Points in the paint allowed by Utah, few enough to win this game without Paul’s and Tucker’s long range heroics.

24 – Jazz assists, second most of the series and playoffs by Utah.

94.6 – Houston’s defensive rating with Trevor Ariza on the floor. His impact far exceeds his raw statistics in this series.

16 – Missed field goals in the paint by the Jazz. Perhaps more than anything else, it was the team’s inability to finish these shots that determined the outcome of the last three games.

Sundries

Looking at the season’s end from its beginning, would a 4 to 1 loss in the Conference Semi-Finals to the league’s best regular season team be considered a best-case scenario? Very possibly. Some might argue that would require tearing another game from Houston, but recall that in a similar situation last season versus the Warriors the Jazz were swept. Very possibly, Utah exits the 2017-18 season on a higher note than they ever believed they could reach this year. Just consider all the reasons the Jazz and their fans have to celebrate:

  • The team made the playoff’s Conference Semis for the second consecutive year. The only other teams to do that are the Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers, Raptors, and Celtics. 
  • In all likelihood, the franchise will boast: the league’s Defensive Player of the Year (Gobert); Slam Dunk Champion (Mitchell); a dead-certain top two Rookie of the Year finisher (Mitchell); a likely top five, and maybe top three, Coach of the Year finisher (Snyder); and quite possibly a top five Executive of the Year (Dennis Lindsey). The Jazz have elite talent at every level of the franchise.
  • Following the All-Star break, Rubio averaged 15 points and better than five rebounds and five assists while shooting 41 percent from three and 88 percent from the line. The Jazz outscored opponents by 10 per game with him on the court. Next season, he will start the season without the tumultuous adjustment period he overcame this year. And he’ll still only be 28-years-old.
  • The team swapped Rodney Hood, who just refused to enter the fourth quarter of a close-out game for the Cavs, for Jae Crowder, who returned instantly to his Celtics form and became a stretch four with Utah’s starters that punished the league as one of the NBA’s very best lineups to close the season. The Jazz got the best player in that trade, and they saved money in the process.
  • At the beginning of the year, Derrick Favors was all but certainly not in the future of the Jazz’s plans, with real questions about Exum as well. Now, due to a league-wide financial crunch (that is hitting the market for big men particularly hard) the Jazz may have a real chance at retaining Favors and Exum on reasonable contracts should they choose to do so. 
  • Favors hit 14 threes this year. The 22 percent accuracy isn’t wonderful, but consider Paul Millsap’s performance from long range at the same age (26): seven of 31 from three (23 percent). Millsap’s development into an ideal stretch four makes clear this shaky first step of a season for Favors may blossom in ways hard to imagine at this point. And remember that the Gobert/Favors tandem outscored opponents by better than eight points per 100 possessions in the post-season, and by nearer to nine points per 100 in the regular season. Over a prolonged period, the duo have proven they can play together.
  • Ingles’s risky contract now appears to be a bargain as the Aussie has shown himself to be one of the truly elite shooters in the NBA as well as a vastly improved distributor.
  • Mitchell, Gobert, and Ingles are all locked up at least through 2020, and at a bargain of $40 million or less per season for all three. Crowder and O’Neale will be here through 2019, and Rubio and Burks through next season. The team has the roster in place, and the cap room available, to do nothing but improve for the foreseeable future. 

The Rockets are, right now, a better team than the Jazz, as shown by their decisive four to one win this series. They’re also far older, the second oldest team in the league. The Warriors are facing a potential financial cataclysm in the next few years. The Spurs are both old and, amazingly, in the purgatory of potentially alienating Kawhi Leonard to the point where he may move on from San Antonio. 

The future of the West is far from certain. After this most amazing stepping-stone season, make no mistake: the Jazz are placing no ceilings on how high they might leap in the future.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.
Clint Johnson

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5 Comments

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    DON-OOOO-MITE!!!

  2. mark alln says:

    The 2018-19 season has some goid free agents but the Jazz probably won’t get a premier player. Costs of contracts are escalating and no one wants to relocate to Salt Lake. So the Jazz need to tie up the contracts of the good players they have. Don’t let Favors go Terrific player who will only improve….Go Jazz!

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Historically this has been true, but I’m not sure to what degree it still is. For any but max players, contracts during the upcoming free agency are likely to be a fraction of what they were after the cap explosion several years ago. Plus, the Jazz have a lot going for them with free agents: Mitchell and Gobert are players others would legitimately like the play with; Quin Snyder has a well-earned reputation as a coach who maximizes his players’ abilities; the team is set to win at a high level for a fairly long window. It’s easier to get endorsements in small markets than it once was, so I think the chances of landing an impact free agent in the next few years are greater than ever in franchise history.

      • Paul Johnson says:

        Just a thought. With Igor Kokoskov leaving for the Phoenix head coaching position, the Jazz have at least one vacancy on its coaching staff. Steve Cleveland is Paul George’s former college coach and lives in the area. Is there a possibility that Paul George would be more likely to sign with the Jazz as a free agent, if Steve Cleveland were on the Jazz coaching staff?

        Probably not, but it’s interesting to think about.

        • Clint Johnson says:

          Who knows. I grossly underestimated Brad Stevens significance in Hayward’s decision. My guess is that the Jazz promote from within to fill Kokoskov’s spot. Feels to me like they want to consolidate what they have, try to further develop and solidify everything that worked well this season, and then look to add a key piece or two next year. That’s my sense.

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