The Jazz’s 10-point overtime loss in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Nuggets seemed like a kick to the onions, but … there’s an extraordinary development that emerged in that defeat. It was plain for everyone to see. It might not make much of a difference in the outcome in this particular postseason, what with the Jazz missing two of their best players — Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley.
That which is extraordinary is this: The Emergence of Donovan Mitchell.
That’s even more significant than a first-round series win over the favored Nuggets in these playoffs.
In order to ever have a shot at becoming what the Jazz have wanted and failed to get for more than two decades now — to become an authentic contender for an NBA title — a team has to have a superstar. Not a really good player, not a group of really good players, not an All-Star, not two All-Stars, not a two-time defensive player of the year, not a slam-dunk champion, not a popular player you’d want to invite over for a barbecue or a summer pool party.
A genuine, bonafide superstar.
That’s what the Jazz have lacked. That’s what they need.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s what they finally have — a 23-year-old who’s become a full-grown, full-blown player of eminence.
What MItchell did in that first game was not just unusual, not just absurd, it was freaking historic.
Nobody’s done in the postseason what he did in Game 1 — except for two others, Michael Jordan (63 points) and Elgin Baylor (61 points). That’s it. None of the other NBA megastars ever reached numbers so high.
I mean, you saw it: f-i-f-t-y-s-e-v-e-n points.
The fact that the Jazz lost is a mere side note. When Jordan put his huge total on the Celtics, the Bulls lost that game and that series, too. But as Larry Bird said afterward, it was an announcement, a pronouncement of future — no, present — greatness.
His Airness had arrived, determined to get more. The rest of his team just had to get up to speed.
None of this is to say Mitchell is Jordan, or he will become Jordan. But it is to say he might be on the path to a status not unlike some of the other true icons that have led their teams to prominence. There’s been one of those on nearly every championship team for 40 years, and probably much longer.
And now, the Jazz have one of the rare finds, something they’ve lacked and missed since Stockton and Malone.
The remarkable thing about Mitchell’s showing against the Nuggets isn’t just the point total, rather the efficiency with which it came. Quin Snyder pointed that out afterward. The words he used were “terrific” and “elite,” words Snyder does not often draw out from his descriptive vocabulary.
The Jazz guard showed all kinds of moves and shots in that game — drives to the basket, weaves toward soft-touch layups, thunderous double-clutch dunks, soap-on-a-rope loops, step-back jumpers, the works. He hit 19 of 33 attempts, so efficiency was the rule of the day. He also pulled down nine rebounds and passed out seven assists.
It was not a selfish showing.
Mitchell was deliberate — judicious, not slow — in his decisions. He wasn’t out for his own glory — never a healthy effect on a team. He simply sensed what his team needed and provided it, tried to provide it. He made some mistakes, suffering five turnovers, but that’s not uncommon on occasions of a burden-bearing hauler carrying a team. His biggest error was a costly one — when he suffered an eight-second violation bringing the ball up the floor after Nikola Jokic knocked a pass out of bounds, soaking up a couple of seconds before Mitchell subsequently failed to cross mid-court in timely manner. That came with 1:46 remaining in regulation, with the Jazz up four. An immediate Jamal Murray bomb cut the lead to one.
It wasn’t a perfect game for Mitchell, then. But that’s likely a good thing in his progression, on account of the fact that he’ll remember those imperfections more than he’ll keep his incredible shakes and makes close, shoving him forward all the more.
There’s work to be done.
His teammates could sense in Mitchell a new kind of determination, something beyond the sweet showings of the past — when he was a cute rookie coming onto the scene and when he’s had big games during the regular season in the aftermath.
No. This was different.
At least it seemed different.
There's the possibility that it was brief brilliance, but ... probably not.
This demonstrated what a fully armed death star could do. It bodes well, if not for the result of this series, for the seasons ahead, for 10 or 20 or 30 playoff series of the future. All the Jazz have to do is add a couple of pieces more, or maybe just get back what they already have, to reach what has been unreachable for far too long.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.