To succeed against Denver, Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell says he’ll need to emphasize his playmaking

(David Zalubowsk | AP file photo) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, left, goes up for a basket as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Denver. The Nuggets won 106-100.

After his lowest scoring night of the season, Donovan Mitchell sat in front of his designated locker in the Pepsi Center visitor locker room and tipped his hat to his opponent.

“I got to give Torrey Craig credit, he made it tough on me,” Mitchell said. “He always does. He’s a great defender.”

That was after a 106-100 loss to the Denver Nuggets on January 30, one of three Jazz defeats to the Nuggets this year. Mitchell scored only four points all game, with his first basket coming with four minutes left to go in a 13-point contest.

All night, the Nuggets made Mitchell the focus of their defensive game plan. Craig did a good job in one-on-one defense, but he wasn’t alone: the Nuggets frequently sent a second defender to stop Mitchell from scoring on his drives. Mitchell, to his credit, usually made the right play — he finished with eight assists in the game — but it wasn’t enough.

You can argue that he struggled even more in the Jazz’s next game against Denver, just a week later. His point total was higher — he had 18 points — but he needed 24 shots to get there. This time, Mitchell ended up with only one assist. He stopped the Jazz’s offense to isolate against Craig, as if to prove a point he couldn’t find a way to prove. He turned the ball over three times in the fourth quarter, and they were critical turnovers.

He was so frustrated after the game that he went out to the Vivint Arena court to get more shots up, the only time the media has seen him doing that in his NBA career.

Fast forward six months and two time zones to last Saturday’s double-OT thriller against the Nuggets. Mitchell scored 35 in the game, including numerous baskets to keep the Jazz in the game down the stretch of regulation and overtime. He also assisted eight times. It’s hard to argue he was efficient in the game overall — he shot just 12-33 from the floor — but his performance proved that he can both score and playmake against Craig and this Nuggets defense.

“They do a great job of making the primary ballhandler get off of it and make the play,” Mitchell said. “And that’s what I’m going to continue doing until I find my areas to score.”

That playmaking is going to have to be to both Rudy Gobert down low and the Jazz’s perimeter threats outside. When Mitchell has found open players in the three games against the Nuggets, they’ve largely been outside of the 3-point arc: he’s found teammates for 14 3-point makes and just six 2-point makes, including only two assists to Gobert.

Some of the exterior passes have been brilliant, though, like this assist to Clarkson with the time running down once he draws three defenders in the paint.

Given the Nuggets’ success against him, Mitchell doesn’t expect many changes to their defensive approach.

“I anticipate them keeping Torrey [Craig] on me. I think we all do. I think he’s a hell of a defender and he has size and length and he’s strong,” Mitchell said. “But for me, the biggest thing is just trying to find a way to get to the paint make plays. Whether it’s a scoring or passing, being able to initiate the offense that way, I think is my biggest thing.”

And Mitchell knows he’s tried to put too much on his own scoring shoulders in his playoff career, especially in both series with the Houston Rockets.

“Last year in Houston, I kind of did a poor job of getting in the paint and making plays. I just tried to find the rim,” Mitchell said. “So now it’s about being able to make the right reads, make the right plays and not really kind of stressing over who’s on me.”

Denver — and Craig especially — isn’t an easy matchup for Mitchell. But it’s not necessarily about the one-on-one battle, but about whether the Jazz can outscore the Nuggets. To do that, Mitchell says he’ll need to prioritize the pass, not the shot.