Mitchell’s Big Night Carries Jazz in Conference Semis Rematch

October 25th, 2018 | by Steve Godfrey

Donovan Mitchell slashed and drove his way to 38 and a win in Houston. (Tim Warner via espn.com)

Prior to the matchup in Houston Wednesday night, guard Ricky Rubio dissected the Jazz’s inconsistency to start the season. “We play good as a team for spurts,” Rubio told the Salt Lake Tribune, “but we (don’t) do it for a complete game and that’s what great teams do: they keep pounding and keep playing their game for 48 minutes.” 

It still wasn’t perfect, but it was leaps and bounds closer to the right direction as the Jazz beat the Chris Paul-less Rockets 100-89. Donovan Mitchell had his first sensational game of the season, scoring 38 points on 14-for-25 shooting night (4 of 9 from deep). Maybe more impressively, he also contributed seven assists and five rebounds in a really complete game. James Harden had 29 for Houston but his backcourt mate Eric Gordon was held to 11 on 5-for-21 shooting and made just one of his 12 3-point attempts. 

Houston and CP3’s view on the fight, suspension

Paul missed Wednesday’s game as the result of an altercation with L.A. Laker guard Rajon Rondo over the weekend. He was suspended two games for taking swings at Rondo, and the second game of that suspension coincided with the Jazz’s visit to the Toyota Center.. 

The Houston Chronicle delved into how the Rockets perceived the incident with Rondo, as writer Jonathan Feigen pointed out that the suspension will cost Paul $491,782 for his two games lost. Rondo (suspended three games, $186,207 lost) and the initial instigator Brandon Ingram (four games, $200,428 lost) make less money and therefore the suspensions won’t hit their pocketbooks as hard. These facts led to Coach Mike D’Antoni’s argument that the penalties were unfair given that Paul has the richer contract and was responsive in the altercation in the first place. 

“I don’t agree or anything close to it,” D’Antoni said of the NBA ruling. “It’s just not equitable. You talk monetarily, he’s paying three times more than other guys are paying for missing games? That doesn’t seem to be right.” He also added, “You watch the film, you watch the spit — you understand maybe he gets one (game suspension). But what is he supposed to do? Stand there and get spit on? Take a punch in the face and then, ‘That’s OK? In the heat of the moment, somebody does that, that’s tough. I mean, that’s really tough. I don’t know what they expect him to do.” 

Revisiting the Playoffs

Without Paul at the helm, this matchup wasn’t the equivalent of what it was last spring. Making it even more unbalanced, Harden left the game with five minutes remaining due to tightness in his hamstring, with no clear explanation on how, why, or when that occurred. All told, the game wasn’t a true indicator on if the Jazz have closed the gap to potentially reach the 2nd seed in the Western Conference playoff pecking order. 

That second-round playoff series was a better measuring stick for the Jazz. For example, we learned: 

  • That Mitchell can’t do it all. He averaged 19 points per game in that series and did his best to carry the offensive load, but the grind was taking its toll on his legs as he shot 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from the three.
  • Part of the problem was that the Jazz were without Rubio, who left the first-round series win over OKC with a hamstring injury. Without a pure point guard to run the show, Mitchell took on more of a ball-handling role. Nearly a third (31.1%) of Jazz plays in that series against Houston involved the Spida when he was on the floor. After a coming-out regular season, combined with a legendary first-round series, Mitchell was the brunt of the defensive game-plan while also losing stream in that second-round series. 
  • Without Rubio, the Jazz also learned that their offense needs the Spaniard. Without him at the helm, the movement and flow stalled out. In the four losses, the Jazz scored 96, 92, 87, and 102 points, all notches below their 104 season average. Sure, they missed Rubio’s 13 points, but more so his five assists and hand in getting the ball around for easy buckets. Not only did he control the offensive game plan, but he also pushes the flow and pace. Without that, the offense was out of funk, to say the least.
  • What also played a role in the scoring dip is that the Rockets employed a switching defense on all screens. The Jazz rely on screens and movement to free up space for quality shots, ideally near the rim or open looks from 3-point territory. The Rockets sniffed that out and countered by switching at all times which relies heavily on movement from their end. It takes more effort and concentration, but it was a way to slow down Mitchell and prevent easy buckets. It worked and many around the league wondered if the Rockets provided the blueprint on how to shut down the Jazz heading into the 2018-19 season. 

On Wednesday night, Rubio did play but he struggled with his shot (1-for-8) and with turnovers (six). Nonetheless, his presence still had a positive impact despite his four points. He instigated the offense and got the ball moving, which is indicative of his plus-15 floor rating. Also, with the ball in his hands for a large number of possessions to share the initiation duties with Mitchell, Donny was able to ease into the game, slash into the lane, and work into his offensive rhythm. 

Houston’s defensive game plan also differed from their May playoff series, during which they had the since-departed Trevor Ariza to help on rotations and switches. Ariza was a Mitchell-stopper in the playoffs, and his absence must have made Spida lick his chops in advance for this new matchup. P.J. Tucker, a key cog on their defense, did reach around for seven steals in helping Houston force 18 Jazz turnovers (on the season, Houston is bottom-ten in forcing TOs at 11.7 a game) but he was still a minus-10 during his minutes and shot just 2-for-9 from the field. Fellow defensive force Clint Capela was outplayed by Rudy Gobert this time around and ended with a whopping minus-16 in nearly 38 minutes. 

Another difference from that playoff series to now was the way the three-point shot went down. Remember, Houston lives and dies by the three and on Wednesday they died. Like last year, they are putting up the deep shots, but so far this season they haven’t been falling at the same rate.  While the NBA is experiencing an offensive revolution in 2018, Houston unexpectedly isn’t rolling the same way. Houston is averaging 116 points per game, 13th in the league and was only able to get 89 up in a home game, albeit without their point guard. They are also a notch below Utah, and a notch outside of the top ten, when it comes to 3-point percentage with 37.6 percent shooting from deep on the season. Gordon certainly played a role, but the team shot 27.5 percent on 40 attempts in this first battle of the season against the Utah defense. 

What’s Next?

The win evens the Jazz record at 2-2 and helps atone for the ugly loss to Memphis on Monday night. The Jazz have two days off to prepare for the scorching hot New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night. Anthony Davis and company are leading the NBA in scoring and are undefeated in league play. AD is phenomenal, but it’s their other big, Nikola Mirotic who is red-hot right now, netting 48 percent of his threes on nearly eight attempts per game.

Bonus: around the league in an eventful first week

Speaking of Mirotic and the Pelicans, that first week of NBA play was fun. Here are a few quick notes from around the first eight days of action: 

  • Offense, as a whole, was explosive. Twenty teams averaged more than 110 points per game with New Orleans at 140 (!) and Sacramento (!) second with 125.7 a game. Even the defensive-focused Jazz are in the mix at 5th overall with 123 points a ball-game. If you like pace, LeBron James’ Lakers are putting up a 112 pace and rookie Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks are fourth at 108.33. If you like threes, half of the league is hoisting up deep bombs for 30% or more of their team’s points with the Charlotte Hornets1 in the lead at 42.6 percent of their points from beyond the arc. Surely it isn’t all sustainable, but the first week was offensively explosive.
  • Oh, and Mirotic, of New Orleans, was the second leading scorer of the week with 33.0 points per game. Zach Lavine, of Chicago, was third with 31.5 ppg. Because, duh, ya know? 
  • The “Spit-gate” brawl with antagonist Paul, left-hook of Rajon Rondo, and Ingram’s sucker punches was also a notable first-week event. But the real show came via all the twitter madness that followed, complete with investigations and slow-motion videos of projectile saliva.
  • Like New Orleans, the Denver Nuggets are another team scorching out of the gate, going 3-0. In one game, Nikola Jokic pitched a perfect game with 11-11 shooting en route to a 35, 11, and 12 triple-double. The next game, Juancho Hernangomez blocked a Golden State layup attempt in the final seconds to preserve a 100-98 victory. Oh, and the Nuggets lead the NBA in opponents points per game with 95.7 because, like, they’ve always been good at defense?
  • The Los Angeles Lakers went 0-3 as LeBron learned the struggle of playing in the west with close, physical games against Portland, Houston, and San Antonio in OT on Monday. (They finally notched a win in Phoenix on Wednesday.) In the midwest, OKC remained winless as well as Russell Westbrook missed the first two games and his return wasn’t enough to salvage a victory. They’ll get another try on Thursday when they host Boston on national TV.
  • Lastly, the opening week included a bunch of nail-biting finishes, especially last Saturday night. The Raptors beat the Wizards by four; Jayson Tatum hit a clutch jumper to give the Celtics a 103-101 victory over the Knicks; the 76ers got by the Orlando Magic 116-115 thanks to a JJ Redick three-pointer with 17 seconds left; Kemba Walker hit a free throw with .5 seconds left in a Hornet 113-112 win over the Heat; the Pistons beat the Bulls by two 118-116; and, the Mavericks got the win over the Timberwolves 140-136 thanks to a Dennis Smith jumper2.
Welcome back, NBA.

Steve Godfrey

Steve studied journalism and English, and now teaches high school in Northern Utah. He started his own website and writes about being a Tortured Jazz fan at: http://www.thetorturedfan.com/. He joined the Salt City Hoops team at the start of the 2017-18 season to connect with more Jazz fans and to continue to apply his passion for writing and for basketball.

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