Mitchell Heeds His Coach’s Urging, Lifts Jazz to Round 2 with 38

April 28th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Utah advances after Mitchell brought his coach’s prophecy to life by “going off.” (ESPN)

During an early timeout, Jazz coach Quin Snyder injected some confidence into his rookie prodigy. Then, Donovan Mitchell injected some energy into what ultimately became a closeout Game 6 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, 96-91.

Mitchell took over the decisive Game 6 with a 22-point third quarter. His outburst allowed Utah to survive a late Thunder run and a monster game by Russell Westbrook. Afterward, he credited his coach for giving him the belief to take over the game.

“To be honest with you, Coach Quin called that. The whole thing,” Mitchell recounted. “The first half, I was hesitant and didn’t really– I was kinda nervous, to be honest with you. He came up to me after one of the timeouts before the half ended and he said, ‘We’re going to win this game, and you’re going to go off.’ Word for word, that’s what he said.”

At that point, Utah’s offense was disorganized after the unexpected exit of point guard Ricky Rubio, who reaggravated a recurring hamstring problem. But Mitchell was heartened by his coach’s vote of confidence and was able to jumpstart the offense, particularly during that remarkable 8-for-10 stretch coming out of the break.

“The things that Donovan did tonight, the team needed. And that’s who he’s been,” Snyder said after the Jazz closed out the series four games to two. “He’s been a team first guy. Sometimes a team needs a guy to take things on his shoulders.”

Mitchell did just that, scoring Utah’s first 10 points after intermission: two drives and two 3-point buckets. But he was hardly done. He finished with 38 in all, the highest point total by a rookie in an NBA playoff game in 31 years1

“From that point on, I just kept knocking down shots. I was in a different mode, I guess. It was crazy.”

“Obviously, when you look out there, it’s not hard to find out the guy who can create offense for your team,” Snyder added.

Utah never trailed after Mitchell opened the second act with a personal 10-5 run, but they certainly didn’t coast either. Westbrook had his own marquee performance to keep OKC within striking distance the whole way. Every time it felt like the Thunder were at risk of losing touch, the reigning MVP manufactured a timely three or a drive to the basket.

He didn’t have a ton of help on Friday night, though. Steven Adams had 19 points as a rim finisher and also grabbed 16 boards, but OKC’s secondary scorers were off. Carmelo Anthony had just seven, and Paul George was held to an almost inexplicable 2-for-16 outing. His five points were his lowest total in a playoff game since 2013.

In particular, one of his misses will draw some conversation. And it came at the end of a wild Thunder possession.

OKC got the ball with 1:08 left, down three. Their next possession lasted 50 seconds, featured six shot attempts, produced zero points, and contained the most talked-about no-calls of the series.

Westbrook missed a layup, but Adams kept the play alive. George drew iron on a long three, and Westbrook grabbed it. Westbrook missed, and the tipped ball landed with reserve guard Raymond Felton. OKC then burned its penultimate timeout. 

Still with me? We’re not even halfway through this craziness.

George overshot the rim on a drive against Derrick Favors, but Adams got to the ball and flung it to Westbrook for another tying 3 attempt. His shot rimmed off, too, but the ball ricocheted off of Mitchell on its way out of bounds. The refs conducted a lengthy review to confirm this, after which Thunder coach Billy Donovan called another timeout, his last. That decision had pretty big tactical consequences. Why did Donovan need a timeout when he could have drawn up a play during the roughly two-minute review stoppage? The decision to burn one there meant that OKC wouldn’t have another way to stop the clock or advance the ball. They were basically all-in; they needed to score there.

The ball came into Adams, who handed off to a George as the latter curled around the screen. Utah switched, which meant defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert picked George up as he dribbled to the top of the arc. But Gobert bit hard at a shot fake, and once he was in the air, George was able to create contact. Snyder even put his hands on his head in apparent horror, but no foul was called. The Thunder were incredulous. 

“I think [George’s] three at the end, there should have been a foul called,” Westbrook said after the game. “Got him in the air. But you know, things like that happen.”

George didn’t comment directly on that play, other than what might have been an oblique reference: “I thought we did enough to at least go to OT.”

Of course, there are no guarantees he would have sunk all three free throws had they been awarded, especially given the shooting night he was having. And even he did, Utah would have had an opportunity to break the tie. With no timeouts remaining, OKC would have had few options to extend the game. In other words, it’s impossible to know if that whistle would have changed the outcome. But Billy Donovan would have liked to find out. 

“I do know I would have liked to have Paul George headed to the free throw line,” the Thunder coach said. “We weren’t afforded that opportunity.”

Gobert admitted that he was “definitely” caught in the air, but also said that offensive players don’t always get that call when they jump sideways into the defender. In fact, per the rulebook, a sideways jump into a legal defender can even be called an offensive foul. Gobert didn’t exactly have legal guarding position here, but the refs did indeed use that distinction of a lateral jump to justify their decision not to make a call.

“Rudy Gobert jumped to the right of Paul George,” lead referee Ron Garretson said to a pool reporter after the game. “The determination was that Rudy would have not made contact if Paul had not jumped sideways.”

Honestly, that explanation probably won’t hold up when the league releases its review of the final two minutes of the game. George’s sideways jump wasn’t a completely unnatural shooting motion2, and more often than not, shooters do get that call unless they go up in a wildly unconventional way3. The officials might have missed one, even if this was just one potential call in a series that basically consisted of 288 mostly grueling minutes4.

“I think throughout this series, there have been some calls that went either way,” Gobert said. “One play isn’t the difference in the series.”

More importantly, the call shouldn’t distract from a truly brilliant duel between Mitchell and Westbrook, which was the real story of Game 6.

Snyder explained that, without Rubio, the Jazz wanted to simplify their sets a little in the second half. They took out a lot of the fluff and layered actions that typically define the Utah offense, and instead focused on Mitchell’s ability to break down the defense with the ball out of simple high pick-and-roll action. In that way, they somewhat adopted the identity of their first-round foes. Ironically, the Thunder brought more creative playmaking to Vivint SmartHome Arena than we had previously seen from them in the series. It really was a reversal for the two squads, but both Snyder and Mitchell insisted that Utah won the game by sticking to its broader principles, even if the playbook was pared down some. 

“The way we play together, we weathered the storm when they came out hot early,” Mitchell explained. “We stuck together and that’s been our motto all year.”

Utah’s entire starting unit was terrific. Gobert once again impacted everything defensively, and notched a 12-and-13 double-double. Favors and Joe Ingles added 13 and 12, respectively, but that undersells their contributions to the closeout win. Both were tremendous defensively and really bailed Utah out at times when the offense was stuck, like when Favors drilled an 18-footer with 68 seconds to play. Both had tremendous impacts on the scoreboard.

Utah also got a lift from seldom-used reserve Alec Burks, pressed into duty by Rubio’s absence. As Mitchell noted, Burks is always ready from a scoring perspective — he had 11 quick ones in under 17 minutes of play. But he also was credited by his coach and teammates for being prepared to be the primary defender on Wesbrook for stretches. He was able to defend within the team scheme, funneling the superstar guard toward lurking bigs to try and force midrange pull-ups.

Still, it was Mitchell’s night. And even the Thunder realized it after the final buzzer rang.

“I was wowed by his work ethic, his heart, his competitiveness,” said George, who worked out with Mitchell last summer. “All of that showed through his rookie campaign. So (I’m) really proud of the way he’s carrying himself on the floor and just the confidence he has.”

Mitchell and the Jazz will take that confidence into the second round of the playoffs, but they won’t have much time to celebrate or prepare. Game 1 against the waiting Houston Rockets is on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 Mountain Time (ABC). Utah was 0-4 against Houston (all blowouts) in the regular season, and it doesn’t help that Rubio’s status is up in the air. 

But Utah, now 33-8 in all games since January 24, keeps finding the confidence to compete. Sometimes it comes from a precocious rookie, sometimes from a defensively dominant big man, sometimes from the club’s mantra that “the strength of our team is the team.”

Or sometimes, as it did on Friday, it comes in the form of a direct exhortation from the coach.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

One Comment

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Watched the last George shot. It was not a normal shooting motion at all. Donovan lost the ball out of bounds but Grant went over his back a bunch. Sad the Jazz fans at the end messing with Westbrook, but he also is paid millions to just walk away. Burks came up big at the right time. Re-sign Derrick. He is the backbone of the Jazz. What a shot by him. Got to make freethrows and cut turnovers vs Houston. Great game by this young team under trying circumstances. Hope Ricky is well.

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