Even superstars sometimes find themselves lost in the fray.
That’s exactly where Donovan Mitchell is at the moment, somewhere between still flustered from his first two performances in this first-round playoff series and anxious to revert back to his usual unique mesmerizing self. The 22-year-old Jazz guard has let himself have it, too. He put his hand up after the Jazz lost Game 2 to the Houston Rockets by 20 Wednesday and said he didn’t show up and that it couldn’t happen again.
He’s not wrong. It can’t happen. Two days later, Mitchell hasn’t perked up. Not one bit.
“Obviously you really can’t get any lower than the effort and the performance that I gave,” he said Friday after practice. “It can only get better from there. That’s pretty much where I’m at.”
As the Jazz stumbled home to Salt Lake City down 0-2 after a couple of knockout punches by James Harden and the Rockets in Houston, there’s been no shortage of plays, performances and defensive schemes that have gone sideways. Nothing has worked. It’s in these moments that a team’s protagonist must rise. Donovan Mitchell knows it’s on him. What makes the second-year guard such a magnetic force to not only Utah’s idolizing fan base, but to his teammates and the NBA as a whole, is his ability to soar and score and have a total blast doing so.
But what has made Mitchell the franchise cornerstone he has become, according to those who’ve coached him along his path to stardom, is his relentlessness to flush the bad outings and eventually rise again to the occasion.
“He’s such a nice guy and he’s so polite, he’s so fun to talk to and comes across so nice, [that] you don’t think he really has that killer mentality, but he definitely does,” said former Louisville assistant coach David Padgett.
Padgett said that during Mitchell’s years with the Cardinals, if the guard felt like he struggled in any way, he’d be the first to walk into the locker room at halftime or postgame and place the blame upon his own shoulders. Specific rough performances don’t stand out to Padgett, because all he remembers now are the games where Mitchell made good on his promise to wiggle his way out of a funk. After a seven-point effort in a loss to Virginia back in 2016, Mitchell bounced back with 25 points in a win at Indiana. After scoring just six in a loss at Florida State later that same year, he bounced back with 29 in a win at Pitt.
“He’s somebody who wants to please the people around him,” said Padgett. “I think that’s just what really drives him. He wants to be as great as he can be. He just has a hard time accepting that sometimes he just doesn’t do well.”
Mitchell’s first-round stat line currently reads as follows: 12 of 37 from the field, 4 of 15 from 3-point land and just 2 of 5 from the free-throw line. In two games, he has 30 points, six rebounds, six assists and nine turnovers. The inherent pressure that comes with being the go-to offensive option for the Jazz means that when things go awry, there is only one way to fix it. And Mitchell has proved he can, because he has done it before.
“When I say aggressive, I don’t mean just attacking the rim and playing offense,” Mitchell said. “It’s just the mindset of getting open and making plays for my teammates.”
Says Jason Smith, Mitchell’s high school coach at Brewster Academy: “I think that’s just part of his makeup.”
Moving on has been a staple of Mitchell’s game since he was scrawny teen on the AAU scene. Before leading his AAU club, The City, to a 2012 national title, Mitchell sat in a gym in Washington, D.C., a month prior having seen his team just go 0-3 and crash out in a prestigious tournament. That’s when Mitchell’s AAU coach, Arjay Perovic, knew that same scrawny guard could eventually blossom into what is now the face of an NBA franchise.
“He lives in the moment,” Perovic said. “I think that’s the best way to put it. He’s going to try and seize every opportunity and every moment.”
What he has in front of him now is a game in need of being seized, back home in front of a raucous home crowd itching to be given any reason to blow their collective tops. The Jazz have looked nothing like their 50-win selves so far against the Rockets and how they’ll need to revert to form is more than just Mitchell splashing a 3 or spinning an acrobatic layup in off the glass. It’ll take everyone. The Jazz will need to embrace that moment Saturday night inside Vivint Smart Home Arena, where they can either inch their way back into this series or suddenly be four quarters away from exit interviews and an offseason of major what-ifs.
“There’s a fine line between, you know, just swinging and boxing," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Mitchell. "So he’s got to throw punches, but, they’ve got to be well-placed and well-timed.”
And, fair or not, the fate of the series rests with how swiftly Donovan Mitchell reemerges and joins the fray.
Rockets at Jazz
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MT
TV • ESPN, AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Series • Rockets lead 2-0
Last meeting • Rockets, 118-98 (Wednesday)
About the Jazz • Forward Kyle Korver played just two minutes in Game 2, but said he was able to more fully participate in Jazz practice than he has in weeks. … Leading scorer Donovan Mitchell has struggled in the series, shooting just 7 for 19 from the field in Game 1, then 5 for 19 in Game 2. … Jazz made just seven of their 32 wide-open jump shots (defined as shots with a defender more than six feet away).
About the Rockets • James Harden had a triple-double in Game 2, scoring 32 points, adding 13 rebounds and 10 assists. … Rockets shot 22 of 45 on their wide-open jump shots. …Rockets were forced into 18 turnovers in Game 2, 14 of them by Harden and Chris Paul