Let’s set the stage, shall we?
Utah wasn’t supposed to win this game.
Don’t get mad.
They were on the second half of a back to back against one of the league’s top teams that has an MVP candidate, Paul George, shouldering the offensive load with another offensive superstar in Russell Westbrook. The now 1st place in the Western Conference Oklahoma City Thunder had two days off before facing the Jazz. Meanwhile Utah was playing its third game in four nights that included games against Golden State and Portland. Their reward was a well rested Oklahoma City Thunder team. How did Utah face the tall task? By pushing a Thunder team that is 1st place in the Western Conference to the very end only to be undone by inexperience.
Utah ended up losing this game by one point, 107-106.
With that being said, Utah may regret losing this one. It has all the hallmarks of a moral victory—and probably Utah’s most deserving moral victory to date—but after trailing by double digits in the 4th, the Utah Jazz fought and clawed back into it and put them in a position to pull out the victory.
With less than 7 seconds left in the game, down 2, Donovan Mitchell took one of the best defensive players in the game, Paul George, to the rim by crossing him up by an insane crossover. Mitchell—whether rightly or wrongly—wound up for the tomahawk slam. He missed, but was fouled. He went to the line where he went 1 of 2. When he needed to make one, he missed. When he needed to miss one free throw, he made it. It was that kind of night for Utah.
Utah was on the wrong end of some terrible non-calls including one in which Donovan was harassed by Russell Westbrook on the fastbreak that would have resulted in Westbrook’s 6th foul, but the young referee swallowed the whistle probably avoiding to influence the game by sending a superstar to the bench. It would have influenced the game heavily, but it would have been the right call.
Having an opportunity to watch the game over again after last night, there are some things that stand out. The officials—on both sides of the ball—seemed to be backpedaling into the game rather than at the same speed. Utah and OKC were ready to do battle like it was a playoff game. These two have a lot of games between them over the past year and a rivalry is building momentum. The officials came into this like it’d be another regular season game in December and found themselves in a Game 6 in May.
There’s another thing that has to be said now. Donovan Mitchell’s missteps may have cost Utah the win at the very end, but there’s no way in hell Utah is even in that position to win if it wasn’t for his heroics. Forgive some Jazz fans if they have amnesia on what it’s like to have a superstar. Take Mitchell’s tomahawk slam that wasn’t in the final seconds. Mitchell isn’t able to have the opportunity to have that dunk if he doesn’t split two elite defenders in Westbrook and George with an elite crossover and make an elite cut to the rim. I said talking about Utah’s recent turnaround:
There is some good news ... and this is hugely important for perspective ... most high scoring rookies don’t increase in efficiency in their second season. It’s truly a mixed bag.
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Kyrie Irving saw their eFG% drop. Michael Jordan saw his eFG% drop by 5%. Michael Jordan saw his FTAr drop as did Magic Johnson, Vince Carter, and Isiah Thomas. That’s what happens when your usage rate increases in your sophomore season while defenses are much wiser to you.
Should Utah be worried about their sophomore this season? Yes, because it limits their winning potential this season.
But should they be worried about their sophomore in the context of his entire career? Hell no. He’s going to be fine and he’s showing a similar dip in efficiency as most high usage scoring guards. He’s fine.
The Utah Jazz have a superstar in embryo. Donovan skipped some developmental steps last year to get to his current level, but development is never a straight line. It has its peaks and valleys. Currently it appears Mitchell is paying the devil for the deal he made last year to gain All Star status. While criticism is fair because the bar that Mitchell is measured against is an insanely high bar, it’s important to keep perspective that many fans are expecting Mitchell to continuously clear a bar that many great players take years to jump over. Mitchell will get there, but keep in mind he has only played 109 games.
Even in this “terrible game” of Donovan’s, he was a +3 while going 7 of 17 from the floor with 20 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and almost a game tying steal. He’s learning at a high level, but just because he’s a prodigy doesn’t make him a basketball Jesus. He’s mortal. He’ll struggle.
Those out there on social media throwing dirt on him are ignoring the insane reality that Utah in only its second season since losing Gordon Hayward is relying upon a 2nd year player as the tip of the spear for its offense. Karl Malone got to be groomed with Adrian Dantley, Deron Williams had Carlos Boozer, but who the hell does Donovan Mitchell have on offense to take that consistent burden? Exactly.
Luckily, in this Oklahoma City game, Donovan got a lot of help. Gobert had another dominant game on defense and ended with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Ricky Rubio had a solid game with 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 14(!!!) assists.
Joe Ingles appears back to being Joe Ingles while hitting 3 of 8 from three for the game and getting into the Thunder on defense.
The game was lost with Utah’s bench. Ebony and Ivory (Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver) off the bench weren’t as dominant as they could have been. They struggled from distance going a combined 0-6 from three. Royce O’Neale was 0-2 from three. Dante Exum was 0-2 from three. Thabo provided some solid minutes again, but he was the bench’s lone plus contributor.
Then there is Paul George. The dude is a machine. This is the Paul George that I got to see on a nightly basis when I lived in Indiana during his prime. He looks back to pre-injury Paul George. An absolute nightmare to play against. He finished with 43 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, and 5 steals. He was absolutely insane.
Helping him was not Westbrook. He struggled and Utah did a great job keeping him in check. Unfortunately, Jazz-Killer Dennis Schroder was available to play. The Jazz’s worst nightmare from Atlanta was 5 of 12 from the field and killed Utah’s bench.
Which brings us back to the beginning. The Jazz were not supposed to win this game. In a stretch that features games against the Warriors, Trail Blazers, Thunder, and 76ers, Utah was going to suffer some losses. Utah was at a rest disadvantage. Utah fought hard. Utah made some mistakes. In the end they were ONE. POINT. SHORT.
If Utah’s only loss in that nightmarish stretch ends up being to the best team in the West on a back to back by only 1 point, then, my hell, what in the world do fans have to be mad about?