Stars who step up their games in the playoffs gain reputations. Playoff Kawhi, the killer robot who becomes completely un-guardable at the end of games. Playoff LeBron, the guy who carries his team to the finals every year no matter what. The NBA Playoffs are where superstars are born. Players can make All-Star teams, hit game winners, and put up all kinds of stats, but they don’t become true superstars until they perform in the Playoffs.
Much has been said and written about Donovan Mitchell’s status. Is he a true superstar? Is he just a one dimensional scorer? These are questions that Mitchell has heard since his rookie season. And he’s not going to stop hearing them until he answers them definitively.
In his young career, Mitchell has made the playoffs every season, and while he’s shown MVP level highs, he’s also shown painful lows. So the jury is still out. Who is Playoff Donovan Mitchell?
As a young rookie, Donovan Mitchell exploded into instant NBA stardom. He took the league by storm and helped rewrite the narratives about the Utah Jazz. He set records, made highlight reels, and scored a whole lot of buckets.
That 2017-18 regular season was fun. The Jazz had lost a star player and seemed destined fall down the Western Conference standings. But this team was scrappy. Led by the Defensive Player of the Decade, Rudy Gobert, and the new star on the block, Donovan Mitchell, Utah fought their way into the playoffs. This team was playing with found money. They weren’t supposed to be back into the middle of the playoff race so soon. So when the playoffs started, all eyes were one Donovan Mitchell. How would the star rookie perform?
He did not disappoint. From the beginning of game 1, to securing the series victory in game 6, Donovan Mitchell played like a star. He put up 28.5 points per game, including a 38 point performance in a close-out game. Rookies aren’t supposed to do that. Only the truly special players are capable of star performances in their rookie seasons. Donovan Mitchell was on the rise.
In the second round, the Jazz faced a truly elite team. The Houston Rockets were an NBA superpower, and they proved it. Houston dismissed Utah in an ugly 5 game series. This series was when Mitchell really looked like a rookie. The Rockets took advantage of Utah’s weaknesses, daring their poor shooters to take open shots, while constantly harassing Mitchell. It worked painfully well. Donovan showed his youth and inexperience. He tried and tried to pick the team up and carry them, but that led to poor, desperate shots. Mitchell ended up shooting only 36% from the field and 25% from three in that series.
That wasn’t completely unexpected. As I said, rookies aren’t supposed to be superstars already, and they certainly aren’t supposed to be able to beat 65 win teams all by themselves. Most fans were encouraged by Mitchell’s overall performance in that season’s playoffs. He’d learn, he’d grow, and he’d become a true superstar in no time.
Another postseason came, and Utah’s worst nightmare came true. They had once again matched up with the Houston Rockets. Well, that’s how things go sometimes. Stars have to exercise their demons, beat their rivals. Here was Donovan Mitchell’s chance at redemption.
It wasn’t to be. Once again the Rockets proved to be Utah’s undoing in only five games. And once again, Donovan Mitchell struggled mightily. He shot even worse in this series than he did in the year prior. It was hard to watch. Many NBA fans came out of the woodwork criticizing Mitchell’s play. And how could he respond to such criticism? He’d just had two terrible series in a row. What was there to say? All he could do was get to work, and come back better next year.
2019-20 was a season to remember. The pandemic, the shutdown, the turmoil, and the NBA Bubble Playoffs. Donovan Mitchell had improved his game, making the All-Star team for the first time in his career. The Utah Jazz management had made big changes to the roster, adding Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. This year was going to be different. It had to be different. Donovan Mitchell was ready to show the world what kind of player he really was.
Game one. Utah Jazz vs. Denver Nuggets. Donovan Mitchell put up 57 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. Utah wasn’t able to pull out the win in overtime, but it was clear, this was a new Donovan Mitchell. He went on to play one of the most prolific individual series in NBA Playoff history. 36 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game. 52/51/95 shooting splits. Multiple 50+ point games. Highlight reel dunks. Game sealing shots. This was a historic series. This was what superstars looked like.
Unfortunately, even superstars lose sometimes. Despite Mitchell’s heroics, the Utah Jazz fell to the Denver Nuggets in seven games. A series win was within reach for so long, but they just couldn’t quite grab it.
Mitchell was devastated by the loss. But he wasn’t giving up. He shared his thoughts after the game. “This isn’t the last of it. This is me scratching the surface. I know what I can do, how hard I’ve worked, how hard this team has worked. This won’t be the end of it. That’s what’s fueling me. This ain’t the end. This is just the beginning. I’m ready to go hoop again right now. I think we all are. This is just the beginning.”
Now here we are. Mitchell is coming off easily the best season of his young career. He’s improved both his scoring efficiency and his playmaking. The Jazz have improved dramatically as a unit, now the number 1 seed in the NBA. Expectations are higher than ever.
So who is Playoff Donovan Mitchell? Is he the inexperienced young player, desperately chucking shots against the Rockets, or is he the cold-blooded assassin dropping 50 on the Nuggets?
Now is the time that he needs to answer those questions. Now is the time that he needs to cement himself as a superstar. He’s no longer a rookie, no longer a young talent with a flawed team around him. He’s a star on a team contending for a championship.
All eyes will be on Donovan Mitchell, but then again, that’s nothing new for him.