The still-struggling Utah Jazz had a few things working in their favor Friday night in order to eke out a 115-112 victory over the Toronto Raptors as they did.
They had a massive 41-14 advantage in free throws attempted.
After getting lit up from beyond the arc all night, they had Pascal Siakam’s wide-open, game-tying try at the buzzer go halfway down before coming back up and spinning out.
And they had Donovan Mitchell on their side.
The fourth-year guard and two-time All-Star — who’s been bombarded with accusations of playing too much “hero ball” by segments of a fan base reacting angrily to the team’s recent swoon — took over down the stretch, at one point scoring eight consecutive points to rally Utah back into the lead.
Asked afterward how he was able to take over the game as he did, Mitchell had an apt quip at the ready.
“Play hero ball,” he replied, deadpan, before breaking into a laugh.
“Just attacking, finding ways to be aggressive, getting in the lane, finding guys, understanding what they were going to give me,” Mitchell said. “Toronto’s been a team that continually is physical and aggressive with their shifts, [so it was] understanding that from the jump, but then also seeing where I can kind of fit in and kind of get in the paint and do my thing as well.”
And so it was that, on a night when he hit just 40% of his shots and was a dreadful 0 of 9 from 3-point range, he was still able to find ways to impose his will on the game.
A big part of his game-high 31-point performance was his aggressiveness in getting into the lane — a night-long habit which resulted in him individually racking up more points at the free-throw line (where he went 15 of 16) than the Raptors did collectively (11 of 14).
Just as important, though, was his improved decision-making, as he posted six assists against just three turnovers, and looked far more in control than he has in other games of late.
“Toronto is one of the best defenses in the league, particularly on the ball, and I thought Donovan showed a lot of resolve. There was a toughness that he had,” said coach Quin Snyder. “Not only was he aggressive and forceful, but he was also precise, and, I thought, made really good reads. So that’s something. Down the stretch, he really let the game come to him. And then at the appropriate time, he exerted himself and made an impression on the game.”
Indeed, his scoring turned a five-point Jazz deficit into a three-point lead in less than a minute and a half.
Down 110-105, he attacked Norman Powell off the dribble and earned a trip to the line. Trailing by three, he snared a Siakam airball, pushed the pace, and accelerated past Fred VanVleet for a layup-and-one. Following a Kyle Lowry miss, Mitchell again attacked VanVleet, crossing him over, taking him into the paint, then sinking a contested midrange jumper. And finally, with Toronto needing to foul to stop the clock, Mitchell went to the line again, where he hit one of two.
He said he felt increasingly calm in those crucial moments, in spite of the tense nature of the game.
“Just doing what I do, taking the shots that I was given, not really forcing anything,” Mitchell said. “I think I forced a few early in the game that I wish I had back, but all the shots I had in the second half, I was pleased with all the decisions I made.”
Meanwhile, he was filled not merely with poise but also praise, particularly for his veteran backcourt mate, Mike Conley, for constantly being in his ear, whether to provide tactical advice or simply to offer encouragement.
Conley, who had a rough outing himself in shooting 1 of 6 from deep and coughing the ball up half a dozen times, said his aim was simple.
“For a guy like him, it’s just keeping his mind clear. It’s trying to tell him, ‘Man, you got this. This is your game — take over. It’s your time. Work that action that’s been working. Defensively, I’m here for you if you need to switch on a matchup or whatever at the end of the game,’” Conley said. “He likes to take the challenge at different parts of the game, so just being a backbone and a support system for him as he goes.”
Mitchell, who has now reached the 30-point plateau in five of Utah’s past nine games, said he understands the criticisms of his game, the argument that he sometimes unplugs the team’s famed blender with too much isolation, that he sometimes causes the offense to stagnate by forcing ill-advised shots.
He knows he’s not immune to such lapses, to occasionally overdoing it.
But he also reiterates that him being in attack mode is a vital component of the Jazz’s functionality in generating points.
“Continuously being aggressive, I think that opens up a lot in on the offense. I think that’s what’s going to take me and this team to another level,” Mitchell said. “Not necessarily having 30 every night — I’ve made it known that I don’t have to have 30 every night for us to win; it’s evident with the way we play.
“But … if they take away the 3s, my lane is going to be there for layups. You want to collapse on me in the lane? The 3s are going to be there. Want to play me in the pick-and-roll? Rudy is going to be there for the lob, or Fav,” he added. “So [it’s about] trying to find ways to manipulate the game. And it’s something I’ve been trying to work on and continuously keep in the front of my brain. And I think I’ve done a solid job. It can be better, for sure.”
On Friday, it was just good enough.
JAZZ 115, RAPTORS 112
Bogdanovic 2-5 5-5 10, O'Neale 3-6 0-0 8, Gobert 5-9 5-7 15, Conley 5-10 4-7 15, Mitchell 8-20 15-16 31, Favors 3-4 0-0 6, Niang 0-1 0-0 0, Ingles 5-6 4-4 19, Clarkson 3-13 2-2 11. Totals 34-74 35-41 115.
Anunoby 6-8 0-0 15, Powell 6-14 1-2 17, Siakam 9-22 5-5 27, Lowry 5-9 0-0 14, VanVleet 6-15 3-3 17, Baynes 1-1 0-0 2, Boucher 6-10 1-2 16, Flynn 1-4 0-0 3, Watson 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 40-83 11-14 112.
Utah 23 32 24 36 — 115
Toronto 27 27 23 35 — 112
3-Point Goals_Utah 12-37 (Ingles 5-6, Clarkson 3-8, O’Neale 2-5, Bogdanovic 1-2, Conley 1-6, Mitchell 0-9), Toronto 21-44 (Lowry 4-6, Powell 4-8, Siakam 4-10, Boucher 3-4, Anunoby 3-5, VanVleet 2-8, Flynn 1-3). Fouled Out_Utah None, Toronto 1 (Anunoby). Rebounds_Utah 48 (Gobert 16), Toronto 31 (VanVleet 6). Assists_Utah 21 (Ingles, Mitchell 6), Toronto 31 (Siakam, VanVleet 9). Total Fouls_Utah 16, Toronto 28. A_0 (20,500)