It feels like ages ago that the Utah Jazz were dealing with the drama of having their star guard pulled hours before Game 1 of their first round series with the Memphis Grizzlies. The advantage of rest and game planning for a week was thrown out the window right before the game started.
It wasn’t pretty either. The first half was a disaster with Bojan Bogdanovic turning the ball over 4 times and scoring 0 points in the half. Jordan Clarkson was no better turning it over 4 times himself as well as going 0/8 from three. Mike Conley put on a valiant effort with 22 points and 11 assists but it wasn’t enough to overcome the loss of Mitchell. Gobert was a +9 for the game but was dealing with foul trouble and only played 24 minutes. Despite all of that, the Jazz nearly came back to win the game with a 3-point loss.
Enter Donovan Mitchell.
Besides being an elite talent, Mitchell’s presence elevates everyone on the floor and removes all glaring weaknesses. You can see how he’s helped different players on the team in multiple ways when you compare Game 1 to the rest of the series.
Conley has been fantastic this series. In Game 1 he was one of the lone bright spots for the Jazz. For the series he’s averaging 20 points, 10.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds. All of this while shooting 44% from the field and 53% from three. So how is he doing in the three games that Mitchell has been back compared to Game 1? 19.3 points, 10 assists and 4.3 rebounds. About the same, right? Well, it’s the percentages that are eye-popping. With Mitchell he’s shooting 50% from the field and 68% from three (insert fire emoji).
Now, that’s obviously a small sample size but watching the Jazz since Mitchell has returned they’ve looked nearly unguardable with Mitchell on the floor. Also, humor me.
There’s two things that could explain this. Outside of Conley in Game 1 the Jazz looked nervous, almost like they were scared to handle the ball at times. They had as little energy in that game as I can remember a team bringing into a Game 1. When Donovan Mitchell returned in Game 2 you could see the team brought back to life as if they got an electric shock.
I mean just watch this and tell me how this doesn’t give the other players the boost they needed.
yeah, it is loud in here, thanks for asking pic.twitter.com/aQpSxY1V17— utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 27, 2021
The other reason? Donovan Mitchell carries the weight of being the #1 option on this team, and he carries it well. Mitchell has combined his elite physical tools and talent and has molded himself into a force on offense for the Jazz.
Now, if you only checked the box score for Mitchell you might scoff at his numbers. He’s scoring 28 ppg while shooting 39% from the field and 33% from three. Sure, those aren’t the most impressive numbers but what jumps off the page is that Mitchell is getting to the line. He’s averaging 9.3 free throw attempts per game and shooting 89% at the line. That ability to get to the line is the next step in Mitchell’s superstar evolution and we’re watching it happen right before our eyes. That’s not just a sign that Mitchell’s skill level is getting even better, it’s also a sign that he’s driving relentlessly to the rim. The Grizzlies have no one on the floor that can stay in front of him. So when Mitchell is on the floor he’s constantly penetrating the defense and it forces the Grizzlies into rotations. And that means the Jazz are finding advantages. For the series Mitchell is averaging 4.3 assists per game, 2nd to Mike Conley at 10.3. But that ball is moving when Mitchell drives. Per NBA.com Mitchell is second on the team behind Mike Conley with 8 potential assists per game. Conley is at 16.5! It’s easy to see how that penetration from Mitchell creates better shots for Conley and his teammates. Basically, if you want to slow the Jazz down in the half court, you have to figure out how to stop Mitchell from driving and the Grizzlies have no one that can do it.
How has Rudy Gobert done within this small sample size? Well, he also improved.
In Game 1 Gobert was the focus of the Grizzlies defensive focus. Are you seeing the point I’m trying to make yet? In Game 1 Gobert scored 11 points with 15 rebounds but was only on the floor for 24 minutes because of foul trouble. Knowing Mitchell was out of the game, the Grizzlies made a point of going at Gobert in the half court and it worked. What has Gobert averaged since Mitchell’s return? 17.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and he’s logging 34 minutes per game. In Game 1 Gobert only had 4 field goal attempts but is getting 9.3 per game in the 3 games with Mitchell back.
Now, that can all be explained by one fluky game where Gobert was in foul trouble and he would have put up big numbers if he had a more lenient official. Maybe, but having Mitchell on the floor shifts the defensive focus like the Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings. It’s a lot easier for Gobert to roll to the center of Mordor in a pick and roll if the focus of Sauron is on the Donovan Mitchell taking on Dillon Brooks at the Black Gate.
And that’s the real effect that Mitchell has. On nights where he shoots efficiently, the Jazz are almost unbeatable. But even on nights where he doesn’t shoot well it opens everything up for everyone else. Less minutes are being used by players on the end of the bench. Less minutes are being used by players being asked to play above their skill set. Each member of the Jazz is asked to carry the appropriate amount of weight to get the win. And if the Jazz do this, it makes them capable of beating anyone because they have the weapons to take advantage of every mistake the defense makes.
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