Donovan Mitchell knew the moment was coming.
The Utah Jazz guard, surrounded by reporters Friday morning, was asked for his thoughts on Philadelphia rookie Ben Simmons’ one-point performance the night before. Mitchell has traded some barbs with Simmons over which of the two should be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, but he didn’t pile on this time. Mitchell instead recalled ugly playoff performances by LeBron James and James Harden early in their careers.
“It happens to everybody,” the Utah Jazz’s star rookie said. “… You can’t play great every night. It’s not as easy as some people think.”
Mitchell sat in silence at his locker a few hours later, staring off into the distance, a bummer of a prophecy fulfilled. It had happened to him, too.
There will be plenty to learn as the Jazz go over the film from their miserable Game 3 loss to the Houston Rockets, a 113-92 blowout in front of a raucous Salt Lake City crowd. Their typically stalwart defense was missing from the start, allowing 39 points in the first quarter. They looked shellshocked on offense, stumbling through sets. Not one of Utah’s five starters attempted a free throw.
And after his worst performance of the postseason — a game in which the Rockets outscored the Jazz by 31 points during his time on the floor — Mitchell shouldered the blame himself and promised to turn around things for Sunday’s Game 4.
“I would have been better off just not showing up,” Mitchell said, his team now trailing 2-1 in this second-round series. “That’s what I did; I didn’t show up at all for my teammates. I’ll fix it.”
It is unfair to put so much on one player, especially one so young. But Mitchell, who has been sensational during his rookie season and his first trip to the NBA playoffs, knows how much his team relies on him and how little he can afford to have an off night.
“That can’t happen,” he said.
Nearly every player in a Utah uniform struggled to deal with the Rockets as Houston turned up its defensive intensity, knocking the Jazz out of their comfort zones on the court. Joe Ingles, coming off a career night in Game 2, went 2 for 10 from the floor. Jae Crowder, Alec Burks and Dante Exum never were able to provide much spark off the bench.
And Mitchell looked completely out of sorts with Houston shading him to his weaker left hand and forcing him into tough looks in the paint. The Jazz guard finished Game 3 with 10 points, keeping alive a double-digit scoring streak he’d been riding since February, but he shot just 4 for 16 from the field and went 0 for 8 on contested field goals.
“I’m taking terrible shots,” Mitchell said. “… I can’t just shoot terrible shots. That’s what leads to their transition [offense]. I don’t know how many shots I missed, but they were terrible shots.”
The Jazz hope point guard Ricky Rubio can return to the starting lineup after missing three straight games with a hamstring injury. If not, Mitchell will have to find a way to adjust and run the Jazz offense in his stead. The rookie masterfully handed out 11 assists in Game 2. The Rockets reminded everyone how new Mitchell is to all of this one game later.
“I think the biggest thing is my mindset has always been aggressive,” Mitchell said. “Now they’re playing me a certain way, where I have to be able to make passes that I just didn’t make the entire game.”
Crowder had a positive message for the rookie two lockers over after a disappointing Game 3.
“You can’t hang your head. He knows that,” the veteran forward said. “You can’t expect him to make every shot, can’t expect him to make every play. Our effort level as a unit, not just him but everybody, has to pick up.”
But if the Jazz want a chance to even this series Sunday, Mitchell and his teammates know the turnaround will have to start with the rookie.
“It puts a lot of pressure on Donovan’s shoulders,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “He’s been great. He’s been working hard and trying to lead this team. … I know he’s blaming himself for the loss, but I know he’s going to come back next game and do amazing things.”
HOUSTON ROCKETS AT UTAH JAZZ <br>Where • Vivint Smart Home Arena <br>Tipoff • 6 p.m. Sunday <br>TV • TNT <br>Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM <br>Series • Rockets lead 2-1 <br>About the Rockets • Houston woke up in Game 3, blitzing the Jazz for 39 points in the first quarter and cruising to a 113-92 victory. … James Harden is averaging 30.4 points and 8.4 assists per game during the playoffs. … Rockets center Clint Capela had four blocks in Game 3; Houston is 24-0 when he blocks three or more shots. <br>About the Jazz • Rookie Royce O’Neale was one of the few bright spots for the Jazz on Friday. He led the team with 17 points starting in place of the injured Ricky Rubio. … Forward Derrick Favors left Game 3 with a sprained ankle, and his status for Sunday’s game has yet to be determined. … Were outshot by Houston 48.8 percent to 41.7 percent in Game 3 and committed 16 turnovers to the Rockets’ nine.