Last season, Utah was supposed to be a lottery team. Then Donovan Mitchell let the basketball world know he had arrived. Emphatic highlight dunks, no-look passes, scoop layups, and an amazing all-around game paved the way for his sensational rookie season. The Utah Jazz capped it off with a first round series victory over the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Donovan’s incredible performance in the close out game 6. This one is going in the Jazz story books:
It wasn’t just the series clincher in game 6 that was special. Donovan’s entire postseason run was legendary: jaw-dropping plays, ankle breakers, forays into the paint for scoop layups, and-ones, and putback dunks.
The Jazz were simply outmatched in round 2. After Ricky Rubio went down with an injury in game 6 vs OKC, Utah’s 13th overall pick and undrafted rookie backcourt faced off against future first-ballot hall of famers Chris Paul and James Harden. Utah stole game 2 and in game 5 they were well on their way to forcing a game 6 until Donovan went down with an injury early in the 4th quarter. In the 3rd quarter, Donovan Mitchell had outscored the entire Houston team and led the Jazz from down 11 to up 3 - scoring or assisting on all but 1 of Utah’s buckets during the run.
This year, Donovan and the rest of this Jazz squad are more prepared. Mitchell is playing more under control and ended the season at 36% from deep after shooting 29% through January 1st. Over his last 43 games, Donovan put up 27/5/5 on 45/42/81 shooting splits. He’s figured it out and everything is clicking at the right time.
Utah brought in seasoned playoff veterans like Kyle Korver, and the younger players on the team have two series worth of additional postseason experience. Rudy Gobert improved his game and just capped off an absolutely bonkers season that should earn him All-NBA, All-Defense, and Defensive Player of the Year honors. Thabo Sefolosha is healthy for the playoffs. Rubio should be healthy as well. Utah is deeper, more experienced, and a better overall team than they were last year. The Rockets lost some key rotation players and defenders with the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
So the question is, can Donovan top last year’s postseason performance?
Throughout his career, he’s gotten progressively better with each game. His improvisation and in-game adjustments have been fantastic. Mitchell has a knack for adjusting to defenses on the fly, forcing them to scramble and react to something that wasn’t in the scouting report. He’s been seeing the court better, improving on his assist rate while cutting his turnover rate despite an increase in usage.
Donovan is a naturally gifted athlete, sure. But more than that, has a feel for the game that simply can’t be taught. He seems to intuitively understand how momentum shifts can impact a game. His instincts on the court are fantastic. He also understands that basketball is a team sport, and that keeping his teammates engaged can be better than continuing to look for his own shot - even when he’s on a tear.
On March 29, against the Wizards, Donovan Mitchell showed a lot of what makes him a special player. He and Beal were dueling, trading buckets and scoring in bunches. With just under 5 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, Washington cut the lead to 4 points. Donovan responded by scoring on consecutive possessions, first on a three-pointer then on a pull-up jumper from mid-range. With 4 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, Donovan scored his 25th point of the game, putting Utah up by 9 ...
Then he got the ball in transition with a decent look from 3. A Washington defender was closing hard... and Donovan just kicked it to the corner for a wide open Royce O’Neale three. Washington had cut the lead to just 4. In less than a minute and a half of game time, Donovan led the Jazz on a run to extend the lead to 12 points.
Some of that sequence can be seen here (starting at around the 6:00 mark):
This game (and especially that sequence) is a good snapshot of who Donovan is as a player.
He’s an improviser.
A team player.
Donovan is a Jazz man. And the list of guys who have done a better job of embodying what that means is incredibly short.
Donovan is ready to prove the doubters wrong. Again.