Philadelphia • Donovan Mitchell came into Friday night’s game looking to make a statement against Rookie of the Year rival Ben Simmons.
He certainly did that, leading the Jazz in scoring with 31, though it took him an extraordinary number of shots (35 looks, including 11 from 3-point range) to do so.
And thanks to a high-powered fourth quarter, the Jazz had a chance to win in the final minute. But Jazz defensive mistakes down the stretch, and poor free-throw shooting throughout, cost Utah and allowed the Sixers to turn a tied game to a 113-107 win in Philadelphia.
Fans in Philadelphia came pumped for this matchup: Not only was it the first time that Mitchell had played against the 76ers and Ben Simmons since the Rookie of the Year race, it was also new acquisition Jimmy Butler’s home debut. The game began with Allen Iverson ringing a Liberty Bell replica at center court to welcome Butler, and he wasn’t alone with the message. Sixers fans chanted Butler’s name several times throughout the evening, and Butler responded with a quality night, scoring 28 points and the game-sealing layup with 19 seconds left.
That easy layup came from an out-of-bounds play with only 20 seconds left in the game and five seconds on the shot clock. Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert didn’t communicate on the play, leaving Butler with an easy path to the hoop. It was the final uncharacteristic mental mistake from the Jazz in a string of them that ultimately cost them the game.
“We’ve got to be smarter. A lot of mistakes add up,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We had some plays that we’ve just got to think more and we can’t have breakdowns, especially against a team that’s as good as they are.”
That the Jazz had the lead at all was a minor upset, given how poorly they played in the first quarter. The Jazz got out to a 16-point deficit early, as the Sixers made 12 of their first 13 shots and were sent to the free-throw line with abandon. It looked like the woes of Wednesday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks had stuck with the Jazz.
But the Jazz began to lock down defensively as the game progressed. Derrick Favors came in for Gobert after the latter found himself in foul trouble, and keyed a comeback that turned the deficit to just two by halftime. Favors' movement on defense and finishing around the rim gave Joel Embiid fits, and Thabo Sefolosha made his first big contributions of the season guarding Ben Simmons as the Jazz came back.
After a tied third quarter, Snyder went to his stars in the the fourth. Mitchell scored 13 points by hitting five of his first six shots in the quarter, drawing oohs and ahs mixed with boos and taunts as he jawed back and forth with the Philly crowd.
And while mental mistakes cost the Jazz the game late, the box score tells a different story: They could have had the game sealed up if not for all of the missed shots. The Jazz again shot only 18 percent from 3-point distance, and while that represents progress from Wednesday’s 50-point debacle loss — when the Jazz shot 17 percent from deep — it still was low enough to prevent the Jazz from running away in this one. Mitchell was the biggest problem, making only one of his 11 3-point attempts.
“I took 35 shots, that can’t happen. Zero assists. It’s not who I am, it’s not how I play," Mitchell said. "I have to be aggressive, but I still need to take smarter looks.”
Mitchell did outplay sophomore counterpart Simmons, who scored 10 points, adding eight assists and eight rebounds in the win.
Fans, and the players themselves, will also point to the free-throw percentages as a major reason for the loss. The Jazz made only 56 percent of their free throws on 37 attempts. Players like Mitchell and Rubio, usually solid free-throw shooters, couldn’t find the basket on this night, shooting only 8 of 16 combined from the stripe. Favors and Gobert didn’t bail them out with their free-throw shooting, either.
In the end, takeaways from this loss depended on who you asked from the Jazz. For some, it was a missed opportunity to earn a much-needed win, the kind of loss that has defined this season through 15 games. For others, the positives to build on outweighed the negatives.
“We played hard. We executed. Up until the end, we made a few mistakes, but we played passionate. Honestly, they’re a great team, but we had the game in the bag except for a few mistakes,” Mitchell said. “I think the game just got away.”