With seconds remaining in Utah’s 114-108 comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans, rookie guard Donovan Mitchell stepped to the free-throw line to pursue history.
As he did so, 17,725 fans at Vivint Smart Home Arena serenaded him with MVP chants. Mitchell made the first shot. Then he made the second, establishing a franchise rookie record for points in a game.
For one night, the MVP coronation wasn’t hyperbole. Mitchell scored 41 points against the Pelicans, with 29 of them coming in the second half and 17 in the fourth quarter. In a game where the Jazz had little energy, Mitchell played like a superstar and forced the biggest rally of the season.
“That man, he’s a monster,” Utah center Ekpe Udoh said. “He’s making his time now, and everyone better take note.”
His performance was as special in person as it was on the stat sheet. And it was impressive in the box score.
He was efficient, shooting 13 of 25 from the field. He was explosive, getting to the free-throw line 11 times and making nine attempts. He was versatile, grabbing four rebounds and handing out four assists. He was difficult to guard, making 6-of-12 3-pointers.
Mitchell became the seventh rookie in Jazz history to score at least 30 points in a game. He became the first NBA rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to register a 40-point outing.
“I’m speechless,” Mitchell said. “I’m pretty sure I was smiling for the last six points and I was grateful to have the fan support out there. It reminds me of Louisville. I’m just trying to make the right reads, make the right pass. I just want to make the right plays out there.”
Mitchell’s performance is all the more impressive, considering the Jazz gave themselves every chance to lose to the Pelicans on Friday night. Playing their second game in as many nights and third game in four nights, the Jazz played with tired legs. The defense, which had improved in the past week, was once again porous. The offense, which had been so explosive, was slow and had little pop.
When Anthony Davis hit a jumper with 8:41 remaining in the third quarter, the Jazz trailed New Orleans 65-49. NBA seasons are full of schedule losses, and Utah was looking one square in the face.
But then, the Jazz went on a quick 7-1 run. They cut the deficit to 66-56, and just like that, they found a second wind.
“That was the moment we thought to ourselves we could win this game,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to keep battling. We didn’t want to give ourselves any excuses.”
For as amazing as Mitchell was, he wasn’t a one-man show. Shooting guard Alec Burks came off the bench and was sensational, following up Thursday’s 28 point performance at the Los Angeles Clippers with 24 points on Friday night. Joe Ingles scored 13 points, handed out seven assists and grabbed five rebounds. Derrick Favors scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and handed out five assists. Then, when it mattered the most, he shut DeMarcus Cousins down in the waning minutes of the game.
“Equally big, but not as visible was what Derrick did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Derrick was terrific tonight. I thought he really anchored us in the second half.”
Two things gave Mitchell the impetus for his big night. Snyder played him at point guard for large doses in the second half. And all the tussling with Favors wore Cousins out. As a result, the Jazz involved Cousins in pick-and-rolls on nearly every fourth-quarter possession. Mitchell was so quick and explosive, he was able to force the switch and take Cousins to the basket repeatedly.
“Utah got a star, man, for real,” Cousins said.
The Jazz have now won a season-high five consecutive games and have climbed into the seventh spot in the Western Conference. They scored 71 points in the second half, a season-high.
“We love to compete,” Mitchell said. “We came out a little flat, but we came out in the second half ready to defend and ready to guard. When you have teammates like that who want to compete, that’s the type of team you want to play for.”