“I was minus-31. I didn’t really do much as a whole. I wasn’t there,” Donovan Mitchell said after the game three loss. “That can’t happen. I would have been better off not showing up. I didn’t show up for my teammates. I’ll fix it.”
Quite the heavy blame the Utah Jazz rookie point guard was placing on himself. While Donovan Mitchell had one of his worst games of his brief NBA career, there was the Utah Jazz’s superstar in embryo shouldering the weight of the world on his shoulders while looking for an answer to an inconceivable game three drubbing. Donovan Mitchell had been given the burden of playing the role of Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell at the same time the minute Ricky Rubio went down with injury.
“I can’t just shoot terrible shots,” Donovan Mitchell said analyzing the game shortly after the loss. “That’s what leads to their transition. I don’t know how many shots I missed ... but they were terrible shots.”
It’s not fair that Donovan Mitchell is in this position. Just a year ago, Gordon Hayward was sitting where he was after seeing his Utah Jazz squad get dismantled by the soon to be NBA Champion Golden State Warriors as Utah was down their starting point guard, George Hill. Gordon Hayward had to take up the role of playmaker and leading scorer with Hill’s toe limiting him from any action. Gordon Hayward was a seven year NBA veteran. Gordon Hayward looked lost for answers as to how he would respond. The Utah Jazz would be swept in that series 4-0.
Now a year later, occupying that uncomfortable seat after facing off against the NBA’s goliath, Donovan Mitchell is trying to do the same thing—as a rookie. When Gordon Hayward and crew were taking their four game licking from Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, Donovan Mitchell was studying for finals at the end of the semester while trying to maintain his eligibility as he traveled to offseason basketball camps. It’s not fair to ask this much of Donovan Mitchell. It hasn’t been fair the entire season to ask this much of a rookie in order for a team to succeed, but it has been required.
It wasn’t fair that Utah’s comeback had to be led by a #13 pick in the draft. But it was required.
It wasn’t fair that Donovan Mitchell had to fill the vacancy left by an All Star after a four year veteran, Rodney Hood, couldn’t survive in the limelight. But it was required.
It wasn’t fair that Donovan Mitchell had to be the entire scouting report for opposing defenses. But it was required.
Which brings us to the present. It isn’t fair that Donovan Mitchell has to take over for Ricky Rubio in the second round against the league’s best team. But, once again, it’s required.
But Donovan Mitchell was wrong when he said it would have been better had he never showed up. Donovan Mitchell’s rookie year has been filled with so much success that his own superstardom has kept him from the very thing that will allow him to find another gear: failure. He’s also wrong that he didn’t show up for his teammates. Accepting the mantle of Ricky Rubio while also carrying the superstar mantle is showing up. It’s not shrinking in the arena. Learning how to play point guard in the NBA is daunting enough, let alone doing it on the league’s biggest stage against the NBA’s toughest competition.
But in Mitchell’s pursuit in taking responsibility, he cannot forget that he wasn’t alone responsible for the loss. That game was a team loss. No team in the NBA gets run out of their own building if only one player doesn’t show up—maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers—but that’s it.
Now Utah will have to make adjustments. If Ricky Rubio returns, that makes those adjustments easier. Houston hasn’t had to play Utah at full strength with their level of confidence. A healthy Rubio allows Donovan to play to his strengths while not having to worry about Houston treating him as Utah’s only playmaker and weapon. A healthy Rubio gets Donovan back to playing off ball. The season isn’t on the line tonight, but team morale is. A healthy Rubio would give the Utah Jazz a Willis Reed shot in the arm in terms of motivation for today’s game.
In the Jazz’s last game, Houston funneled Donovan Mitchell to Clint Capela. Normally in the past, Donovan Mitchell is barreling to the paint of an off ball screen action which has an opponent’s defense reeling and adjusting, but not with Rubio out. With Rubio out, Donovan is initiating that drive against a set defense that hasn’t had to make a single switch. Like storming a castle at his strongest point, it has produced casualties for Utah’s possessions. Donovan Mitchell’s patented Eurostep hasn’t fooled Clint Capela. Especially has he has been able to wait like a goalie for Donovan Mitchell careening down the paint rather than rotating to help Donovan Mitchell’s man which would give Mitchell a chance to beat Capela as he’s not set.
If Ricky Rubio returns, Donovan Mitchell gets set free again. Rubio will take full advantage of the midrange area that Houston has been giving up freely all series long. That’s Rubio’s bread and butter. His ability to hold his dribble in tight situations puts pressure on Houston’s defense and allows Utah’s advantage offense to get rolling. Utah did their job in getting one win without their life force. Now they need him back more than ever to even up this series and put Houston back on their heels.
While the Donovan Mitchell was meeting incredible resistance on the offensive end, he was missing a normal companion and stalwart on the defensive end.
It is a rare sight to see Rudy Gobert’s defense rendered futile in a game regardless of the team. When Utah loses it’s usually because their offense which has the consistency of an M. Night Shyamalan screenplay fails to manufacture points. So when Utah gets run out of their own gym because their defense just disappears, that’s a story. It’s way more of a story than Donovan Mitchell’s bad game. Utah’s offense will stop and start during a game, like the Wizard of Oz tin man it requires a little oil and you never know when it’ll seize up. Utah’s defense has rarely had an off night since January. Even in games in which the Utah Jazz are down, you can see opposing teams flummoxed by the fact that Utah’s defense hasn’t broken.
Like a cockroach, the Utah Jazz’s defense will be the only thing that remains of a nuclear blast. Unfortunately, Houston’s offense on Friday night was a level five extinction event. Rudy Gobert’s defense was rendered obsolete. But there was a reason for that: turnovers.
Houston was able to get into transition consistently because of Utah’s carelessness with the ball. Joe Ingles had two more turnovers at halftime than the entire Houston team did. Donovan Mitchell might have seen this loss on him as his offensive shortcomings was like gasoline to the Houston Rockets’ offensive fire, but it wasn’t all on him.
Which brings us to today’s game. It isn’t fair that Donovan Mitchell has to have the game of a lifetime in order for the Utah Jazz to even the series, but as it has been time after time after time this season, it is required. Is it possible? We’ll soon see. The Jazz’s rookie phenom has made a habit of making the impossible and improbable be brought into existence. Donovan Mitchell said he’d “fix it.” He hasn’t let us down at any point during the regular season, so why should we have any reason to believe he can’t beat the odds now?