Donovan Mitchell is nearing the end of his first professional season, and he has his friend to thank and to blame.
Houston guard Chris Paul was the one who told Mitchell last summer to declare for the draft, that he had what it takes to play in the NBA. A year later, Paul and the Rockets are showing the Utah Jazz’s star rookie what it will take to win.
“I sent Donovan a text after the [Jazz-Thunder] series and told him, ‘Congrats, talk to you after the series,’” Paul said after one game of this Western Conference semifinal matchup. “It’s all competition. It’s never personal.”
Paul invited Mitchell to his summer camp last year in North Carolina, and the two have remained friends since. They spent time together during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. And, even through the Jazz’s first-round series with Oklahoma City, Paul apparently was willing to provide Mitchell with insight and advice.
But Paul has endured too much postseason heartbreak — too many first- and second-round exits during his Hall of Fame career — to think about friendship at a time like this.
Sunday’s Game 4 featured a bounce-back performance for Mitchell, after a dismal outing two nights earlier. Utah’s budding star went for 25 points to lead his team in scoring for the eighth time in 10 playoff games.
“After last game, Donovan had the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He felt like he let the team down. This is part of his growth as a player. It’s happening in the playoffs. I could not be more satisfied with the way he responded from his game the other night.”
But it wasn’t enough to match Paul, who killed the Jazz with midrange jumpers, finishing with a game-high 27 points and a victory that has him one game away from his first-ever trip to the conference finals.
Paul still feels the sting of losing a 3-1 series lead in 2015. He still remembers the Jazz bouncing his Los Angeles Clippers from the playoffs a year ago. He knows that nothing about this is easy, nothing is guaranteed. And, in his first trip to the postseason, Mitchell is learning that lesson, too.
So after trading buckets all night, the two guards didn’t exchange many pleasantries.
In his postgame remarks, Mitchell said he is still learning from the veteran Paul just by watching his game, the way he handles himself in the pick-and-roll, the way he seems to always have a counter for what the Jazz throw at him.
“We’re all … taking stuff out of his book,” Mitchell said. “It allows you to go back there and kind of do the same thing he’s doing. But we have our own things to work on. Obviously after this series is over, I’ll maybe go back and take a look at [the game film] after the season.”
Paul, meanwhile, simply refused to answer a question about Mitchell’s performance.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’re still playing right now.”