With four players on the postgame dais, answering questions can get a little confusing.
The Jazz veterans made it easier Friday night after Game 6. They deferred to Donovan Mitchell.
As Mitchell handled the last question of the night, Joe Ingles coached him: “He’s asking how it felt to play amazing. Tell him it felt great. You stayed composed. You asked me for advice.”
Mitchell, as he often does, listened to his teammate as he structured his response. But after Game 6 — a 38-point performance which might permanently vault him to superstar status — the list of things Mitchell needs advice on seems like a short one.
Mitchell aced his first challenge — his first career playoff series against three much more established stars. While the closeout effort in a 96-91 winThrough six games was the trump card, the 21-year-old shined throughout the series. He’s averaged 28.5 points per game (fifth in the league) through six games while upping his field goal percentage (46.2 percent) and 3-point percentage (36.4 percent) from the regular season. Even though the Thunder knew he was the guy they needed to slow down, they had no answers. Mitchell scored at least 22 points in every game of the series.
It’s added even more of a flourish to a season of surprises from Mitchell, the No. 13 pick out of Louisville who was considered offensively raw coming into the pros. There undoubtedly are front office officials who picked in the first 12 who are kicking themselves. But then again, watching his weaving third-quarter drive against Carmelo Anthony, whom he hit with a crossover, spin move and step-through in one fluid sequence, who could’ve seen that coming?
Jazz coach Quin Snyder apparently did. Mitchell said that Snyder told him in a timeout that the Jazz were going to win and he was going to “go off.” But after a four-turnover second quarter in which Mitchell looked tentative running the team for injured Ricky Rubio, Snyder acknowledged that he had to make adjustments to smooth out the path for Mitchell’s big night.
“He was aggressive, but it wasn’t just for his shot,” he said. “He did attack the basket like crazy. Then we were able to play off him. Like I said, we wanted to simplify some of the things that we did and get him in a place mentally where he wasn’t thinking too much about anything other than attacking.”
While Mitchell was a standout throughout the series, there were signs of growth during it. He said that nerves took over several times. That might have been a factor in Game 5, during which the Jazz blew a 25-point lead.
The fault wasn’t all Mitchell’s, but he took a sizable chunk of responsibility for ill-advised shots and not moving the ball as much as he should have. Those lessons were taken to heart in Friday’s game. While he took the scoring load on his shoulders, he also scored just 6 of the 18 points in the final period as Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale and Derrick Favors all had crucial buckets.
“After Game 5, there was some questions if we could handle it,” Mitchell said in his on-court postgame interview. “But the character of this team is incredible. We all played well. We all did what we were supposed to do, and everybody came up big.”
No one came up bigger than Mitchell, who helped cast aside the Thunder, a team made up of several of his idols. When Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony flocked to him after a Jazz loss in December, Mitchell said it meant a lot, “but at the same time, I want to beat those guys.”
He had beaten them Friday night.
George sat on the podium at one point, his eyes glazed, his season over and future uncertain as ever. But the five-time All-Star found a word to describe how he felt about the 21-year-old Jazz rookie: Proud.
“I was wowed by his work ethic, his heart, his competitiveness,” he said. “All of that showed through his rookie campaign. I’m really proud of the way he’s carried — is carrying — himself on that floor and just the confidence he has.”