Mitchell Lifts Jazz over King’s Cavaliers 104 – 101

December 30th, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

Despite LeBron James being in town, it was Utah’s own Donovan Mitchell (45) who earned both highlight reel plays and the victory. (Chris Nicoll/USA TODAY Sports)

Story of the Game

To end a brutally tough month of record-caliber competition and injury to their best player, the Jazz closed out 2017 with an achingly needed 104 – 101 victory over the Cavaliers, running their unlikely string of home victories against LeBron James to seven. Happy 33rd birthday, King!

The victory was a product of nearly 48 minutes of engaged, quality basketball, something the team hadn’t managed often recently. Cleveland opened the game strong, looking to put a team that had recently been piling up losses back on their heels. But the Jazz held the deficit to 10 by the end of the quarter. From there out, it was the Jazz that displayed competitive intensity, focus, and energy.

In the final three quarters, Utah outplayed Cleveland in just about every way possible. Offensively, they out-shot the Cavaliers 49 percent to 39 percent and actually earned more trips to the free throw line than a team with James, taking 21 to Cleveland’s 16. Defensively, they stole the ball 10 times while forcing the Cavaliers to stay on the periphery, where they took 30 threes in these quarters but, thanks to some solid shot contesting by the Jazz, only made eight (27 percent).

Most impressive of all, Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors actually outplayed James and Kevin Love in this stretch. Utah’s dynamic duo combined for 39 points on only 20 shots. James and Love, and their 17 combined All-Star selections, managed 30 points on 25 shots.

The end result was a very needed–and apparently unlikely–W to close out 2017.

Stars of the Game

Superstars: Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors

Mitchell earned the King’s attention in Cleveland. Tonight, he added some aggravation to that, essentially cancelling out James’s impact on the game, paving the way for the NBA’s best to lose his seventh consecutive game in Salt Lake. Mitchell poured in 29 points, adding four rebounds, six assists, three steals, and a block. Matched head to head with James, the 21-year-old rookie equaled his point, assist, and block totals, lost the rebound battle by four, and won the steal contest three to two. Most importantly, with Mitchell on the floor Utah outscored the Cavaliers by six while with James in the game Cleveland was outscored by five. At least for the night, the “young king,” as LeBron christened him, got the best of King James.

While Favors stats don’t pop quite like Mitchell’s, they are still impressive: 19 points on 11 shots, six rebounds, an assist, three steals, and a block. But the number that best illustrates Favors’s impact on the game is plus-minus: Utah outscored Cleveland by a team-high 17 in Favors’s 30 minutes of play. Without him on the floor, Cleveland outscored Utah by 14 in 18 minutes of play. With Love playing center, the Cavaliers wager that in the modern game opposing centers can’t punish them enough inside to cost them victories. Tonight, Favors did just that.

Secondary Star: Ricky Rubio

While Rubio’s wasn’t in the game down the stretch1, for much of the night he was as impressive as any Utah player. Through three quarters he threatened a triple double and while he didn’t quite reach it, he came as near as any Jazz player since Carlos Boozer last achieved the feat in 2008: 16 points (on a solid 12 shots), 10 rebounds, and eight assists, throwing in a steal and a block. Perhaps most importantly, his plus-minus2 was a net 13, second best on the team.

Secret Star: Thabo Sefolosha

Ten points on 11 shots may not seem a sizable contribution, but Sefolosha’s impact on this game was huge. In his 31 minutes he led the team in rebounds with 12 and added three steals, all while matching up one-on-one against James throughout the night. While the game’s best player still notched 29 points, Sefolosha won along the margins in a host a ways helping the team to victory. James turned the ball over six times, dished three assists fewer than his season average, and only went to the free throw line five times. Perhaps Sefolosha’s impact can be best seen in a pair of plays. Early in the second quarter, he forced a James turnover and then refused to back down with James swiping at him, which earned a double technical on the pair. Then in crunch time, James drove to the basket through Sefolosha’s chest. The veteran held both hands rigid in the air, and when James missed managed to box out the stronger player and help to cement the victory.

Stats of the Game

17 – Utah’s scoring advantage in the second and third quarters, which the team won 54 to 37. Utah shot 50 percent from the field while holding Cleveland to 33 percent accuracy in the same span.

52 – Utah points in the paint, a huge 14 point advantage on Cleveland. Without a rim protector for the Cavaliers, Utah had to win this battle for a victory.

16 – Second chance points by Cleveland. This is an area that’s hurt Utah at times this month and shows one place where the absence of Rudy Gobert is certainly felt.

25 – The margin by which Utah’s starters outscored Cleveland’s, 82 to 57. This huge gap was important because the Jazz lost the bench battle 44 to 22.

24 – Jazz assists, almost all of which came from Rubio (eight), Mitchell (six), and Ingles (five). The team is now nine and two (a .818 winning percentage) in games where they have at least that many assists.


  • Favors was whistled for his second foul three and a half minutes into the game. Without his presence in the paint on both ends of the floor, Cleveland pressed their advantage. There’s a good argument that if Favors had been available for his typical rotation, Utah may have gotten off to a better start and the game may not have come down to the wire.
  • This game was essentially won in two separate runs. The first was a 17 to six burst by the Jazz in the second quarter. The next, 21 to three to start the third quarter, where Cleveland was notably enervated and disinterested. The Cavaliers were never able to completely overcome those 38 to nine stretches.
  • James took the third quarter off after having 20 points at halftime. He took only two shots in the third, missing both, and dished no assists. The Cavaliers were outscored by 18 in that period. James has always played a lot of minutes (he’s third in the league in minutes per game this season) and so had to find times to coast so as to conserve energy. But tonight, he waited longer than I expected in the fourth quarter to will his imprint on the game, and that after barely going through the motions in the third. It will be worth watching how often he can, or cannot, exert himself by taking over games as he ages.
  • Joe Ingles is trying to speed up his three point shot, particularly in the corners, by releasing shots off high passes without dipping down into his full shooting motion. Thus far, he hasn’t been particularly accurate with those sped up shots. He made one of three long range shots tonight. The only make was an open kickout from the free throw line extended. His two corner threes, both taken with his truncated shooting motion, both missed.
  • Rodney Hood had a tough game though not a terrible one, scoring 12 on 13 shots, all from the three point line. But it could have been a horrible night. In the game’s final minute he received the ball from out of bounds in the back court, dribbled forward against a trap, and while falling hurled the ball forward passed his intended target, Ingles, and into the corner of the court where Sefolosha was luckily sitting. It looked like a turnover the entire play and really should have been. Hood and the Jazz lucked out there. Look for Mitchell to be the first option on such plays where teams might foul the free throw shooter from now on. His ball handling is notably better than Hood’s.
  • A few nights ago against the Thunder I did a critical breakdown of Rubio’s stifling effect on the Jazz offense, analyzing shots charts to illustrate the point. Tonight was a different story and the positive deserves as much attention as the negative did. Rubio played the first nine minutes of the third quarter, in which the Jazz outscored the Cavaliers 28 to 16. Utah shot 56 percent from the field in that span by getting the shots the offense is designed to create, and they did it with Rubio on the floor. Here is a breakdown of the shots illustrated in the shot chart below:
    • two layups and a made three from the wing Ingles
    • a made layup and missed three by Sefolosha
    • two dunks and a made 18 footer by Favors, as well as a missed six foot floater
    • a made layup and three point shot at the top of the key by Mitchell
    • two misses, one in the lane and one three, by Hood
    • a missed elbow jumper by Joe Johnson
    • and two misses, but only two, by Rubio, a pull up 19 footer at the top of the key and a missed three on the wing.
    • Rubio’s shots are the shots defenses give him–and that he’s been missing–but the key is there are only two of them in nine minutes of play. Meanwhile, every other shot on this chart represents a player taking a shot the offense is designed to create for them. It’s worth noting there are no corner threes here, which shows the offense isn’t getting every shot it wants. However, this chart shows the offense getting a lot of good shots by numerous players all while Rubio is on the court. This is exactly what the Jazz thought they were getting by trading for Rubio, and it’s no coincidence this comes in Rubio’s highest assist game since November 11th against Brooklyn.



The Jazz exit 2017 with 16 wins and 21 losses and stand tenth in the West. It’s far from great but given Gobert’s absence and other injuries, the gauntlet that was December, and Snyder’s continued challenges maximizing this roster (particularly the addition of Rubio), being three games behind the Pelicans for the eighth and final playoff spot has to make Utah feel fortunate. Cleveland and Oklahoma City are now off the schedule and only a single game remains against Houston. Utah has played the cellar of the Western Conference–the Suns, Kings, Mavericks, Lakers, and Grizzlies–only a combined three games so far, plus they get the bottom dwellers of the East, the Hawks, twice ahead. There are quite a few games to feast on in the remainder of this season.

So with a grateful tip of the hat to King James for another home victory, Utah will turn the calendar feeling better about their position than seemed likely yesterday. And their first game of 2018 will be Wednesday against the Pelicans, the team the Jazz are chasing for the West’s final playoff spot, and it will be at home where Utah is 12 and six. Happy New Year!

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.

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