Eyeballing the Jazz’s first-round playoff matchup with the Denver Nuggets, Donovan Mitchell considered it carefully, measuring the thing from tip to tail, and then used six words — seven if you pay no mind to the contraction — to put it in its proper place.
“It’s not going to be easy.”
As Grandpa used to say, nothing worthwhile ever is.
Do not be deceived, though, this is the team the Jazz wanted to face. In truth, there were no good options in the West. The Clippers? The offensive flow the Jazz have worked to smooth in the absence of Bojan Bogdanovic would have been jammed against the Clips. The Rockets? Two straight years of playoff defeats against Houston was more than enough for a Jazz team that suffers mightily at the hands of James Harden. The Thunder? Everybody saw what happened to the Jazz’s attack when it ran headlong into OKC earlier in the bubble.
No, the Jazz wanted the Nuggets.
As Grandma used to say, be careful what you wish for.
The Jazz are aiming to be careful.
Mitchell added: “If we play the right way, we can make it easier on ourselves.”
If the Jazz are as accurate as his assessment, they might be able to stretch this series to seven games.
If not, they will suffer through what they endured in the first three meetings featuring these two Rocky Mountain teams — defeat. They were all close and they were intensely competitive, the jewel of the crown coming this past week in a double-overtime thriller in which the Jazz took a lead, lost it, then fought back to gain it again, then lost it again, gained it, lost it.
After that one, Mitchell scolded himself for hitting a spectacular shot for the Jazz win, but in doing so, leaving 3.4 seconds on the clock — enough time for the Nuggets to work their own wonders.
And he was right to blame himself. That is the burden elite players in the NBA must carry. It is a different category in which they are judged. Even if they play well, play extraordinarily, but allow the slightest bit of room for an opponent to take the prize … well, greatness is a steep, steep climb.
It’s a tough mother.
It praises effulgently, but judges harshly.
All of which Mitchell knows: “I’ve just got to make the right decisions,” he said. “Find areas I can attack. … It’s my job to find the [Nuggets'] weaknesses.”
He — along with Rudy Gobert — has to do what stars do. He has to do what LeBron James does for the Lakers, what Kawhi Leonard does for the Clippers, what Nikola Jokic does for the Nuggets, what Harden does for the Rockets, what Chris Paul does for the Thunder.
That’s quite a task, quite an ask for the 23-year-old, but … it’s time for him now. It’s what he must do in the playoffs. We’ll see if it’s what he can do.
Repeating his words, it’s not going to be easy.
Being a star in the playoffs typically isn’t.
It’s what Mitchell always wanted to require of himself. He absorbed that responsibility in those playoff series of the past — against the Thunder (successfully) and the Rockets twice (unsuccessfully).
Now, the Nuggets.
Conversely, playing at his apex does not mean Mitchell must do everything himself. Attempting it would be a mistake, and he knows that, too.
“For us,” he said, “it’s about maximizing everything we do.”
Doing the work that needs doing.
Said Jordan Clarkson: “We’ve got to take it one game at a time.”
It would be tempting to laugh straight into the face of Clarkson for using such a cliche — if it weren’t absolutely true. This series, like most in the playoffs, will require focus and force on the Jazz’s part, at both ends, game by game, quarter by quarter, minute by minute, possession by possession.
If they manage that, every game will be a complete throw-down, and while few expect the Jazz to actually defeat Denver, it won’t be an insurmountable task — if four unlikely things happen.
• The Jazz must help Gobert at the defensive end by helping themselves. He’ll be occupied enough trying to limit Jokic, the big who can play like one down low … bumping, bumping, bumping … and shoot like an oversized perimeter player up top. With Gobert dealing with that, it is more difficult for him to ignore his primary duties to clean up the mess when Jazz guards and wings are beat off the dribble.
• The Jazz must take and make a large number of 3s. Quin Snyder has stressed this in reforming his offense in Florida. Ironic, in a way, considering he’s doing that reshaping without Bogdanovic, who is extremely accurate from deep. He still wants the ball going into Gobert off the pick and roll, but because the Jazz no longer are the defensive fortress they once were, they’ll have to outscore the Nuggets, a team known to give up its share at that end.
• The Jazz cannot turn the ball over. On account of the way they prefer to move the ball, sometimes that penchant for passing gets sloppy, and part of that is understandable. But if it gets excessive, the Nugs will punish the Jazz with early offense. And that would be tough to keep up with.
• Find a way to bother Jamal Murray. While everyone will be watching the Gobert-Jokic showdown, and some will be peeking at the contributions of the rising Michael Porter Jr., Murray is a force that has been unkind to the Jazz in the past. Somebody has to step up and stay with and slow down the guard, especially in the midrange, for the Jazz to survive.
It’s not going to be easy. Is there an echo in here? Yes, there is, and Mitchell’s words will bounce back, be heard again and again in this series. We’re about to find out if the Jazz can make it easier on themselves.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.