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This was an insane situation — and just an error on the part of Jazz management.
A quick recap: Donovan Mitchell missed the last month of the season with an ankle sprain, one that the Jazz evaluated week-by-week until ruling him out completely. But, throughout the process, Mitchell, his teammates, and even sources on background were relatively clear: they thought he was well on track for a return in Game 1 of the playoffs.
So when Mitchell practiced in the middle of the week, he told reporters that “I feel like I’m ready to play 48 minutes.” We heard really positive things about how he had performed in those practices. Yesterday, Quin Snyder said that he was on track for a return, and the injury report didn’t include him at all, indicating that he would play in Game 1. He wasn’t listed as doubtful, questionable, probable; none of the above. Just — will play.
Then we talked to Mitchell this morning, and it couldn’t have been clearer that he was playing. “I’m ready to go tonight,” Mitchell said. “No pain. I’m excited to get going.” Mitchell said he wasn’t at all worried about the ankle — maybe level of conditioning, but felt he was probably going to be okay there too.
The Jazz ruled him out hours later. The team officially declined to comment when asked why Mitchell wasn’t on the injury report before Sunday.
The team’s players said that they found out around the same time the general public did — and that it came as a surprise.
“It was a big surprise. But I try to stay out of all this — it’s just gonna give me a headache,” Gobert said. “When you wake up from a nap and find out your star player isn’t going to play, it throws you off a little bit.”
When Quin Snyder talked to the media before the game, he acknowledged that Mitchell was frustrated with the decision. He also said, and the team confirmed, that Mitchell hadn’t suffered a setback, but the team’s training staff met and decided that they weren’t comfortable with where he was at.
And then the Jazz lost, and boy, did it ever look like they could use Mitchell. Mitchell didn’t get much rest on that ankle either: standing for nearly the entire game, hopping around the bench area, basically acting as a second coach for the Jazz in street clothes.
[Read more: Three thoughts on the Jazz’s Game 1 loss to the Grizzlies]
I think it’s fair to criticize the team on several fronts.
If there is a possibility that the training staff is going to decide Mitchell can’t play on gameday, that has to be communicated on multiple fronts before gameday.
It has to be communicated to Donovan Mitchell, who is the team’s star player. Upsetting him is a terrible thing to do, and surprising him in this way is unfair, especially after he’d been insisting all week he was going to play. This is a big deal: Kawhi Leonard’s relationship with the San Antonio Spurs soured in large part because of team-player injury disagreements, and the discord there set the franchise back a decade. I’m not saying that will happen, but making Mitchell angry is something the Jazz should take big steps to avoid.
It has to be communicated to Mitchell’s teammates. Like Gobert said, getting that text an hour before they have to drive to the arena will mentally throw the whole team off. They’ve been preparing to play as if they had Mitchell, too. They looked unprepared for the possibility on the court as well.
It has to be communicated to the league, the opposition, the media, and fans via the injury report by NBA rule. Not doing so isn’t fair to the Grizzlies, it isn’t fair to the fans who watch the team, it isn’t fair to gamblers who bet on the game, and so on. There are many good reasons that the injury report exists, and not following the rules about it should be punished. The NBA has fined two teams for injury report violations this season (the Sixers and Raptors), and I expect the Jazz to be the third.
In the end, it’s hard to know how much risk Mitchell was at by playing today. But if he plays in Game 2 (and I think he will, but I’ve obviously been wrong before) it’s hard to imagine that sitting him on for Game 1 was worth all of these negatives — including, but not limited to, an ugly loss.
[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]