Having already taken Game 1 from the Utah Jazz on Sunday evening, the Memphis Grizzlies can take firm control of this Western Conference first-round series with a Game 2 win on Thursday night at Vivint Arena, but the visiting team has a problem.
There is no proof that the Grizzlies have the ability to stop, or at least slow down, Donovan Mitchell.
In two regular-season games in late March, played on back-to-back nights at Vivint, the All-Star guard went for 35 points both times, shooting 60% from the floor and 71.4% from 3-point range, while adding 13 assists against seven turnovers.
The Grizzlies lost both of those games, while Mitchell missed the third and final meeting between the teams due to personal reasons.
After sitting out the Grizzlies’ Game 1 win as a late scratch with a well-documented ankle injury, plus the mini-brouhaha over the ankle that followed, Mitchell is set to play in Game 2. If the Grizzlies are to take a commanding, unexpected 2-0 series lead back to FedEx Forum for Game 3 on Saturday night, they will have to figure out a way to deal with Mitchell.
“I expect him to play and be ready,” third-year guard and former Jazzman Grayson Allen said Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think any of us are betting on his ankle being even a little sore. Even if it is, he’s not going to play like it is, so you have to be ready for him at full strength. He’s a guy you have to focus on defensively, you can’t let him get comfortable. He can obviously score at an extremely high level, so for us, it’s another guy we have to try and lock in on, make things as hard as we can for him.”
Mitchell’s play this season against the Grizzlies yielded big numbers, but not being able to slow him down is not a recent phenomenon, but rather something that has been going on since entering the league as 13th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
In 12 career games against the Grizzlies, Mitchell is averaging 22.2 points, 4.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest. To boil those numbers down, 36-year-old Taylor Jenkins has faced Mitchell six times as the second-Grizzlies head coach, and it hasn’t gone well. In those six games, Mitchell averaged 26.5 points per contest, buoyed by the two 35-point outbursts.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, he’s going to add another dimension to what they can do offensively and defensively. We’ll be prepared for what he brings. Did that before Game 1, but obviously, more of a focus will shift to him for Game 2. We understand the depth that the Jazz have and how many playmakers they have.”
Jenkins knows what’s coming. He knows how Mitchell can change the complexion of a game and in this case, a series as his team, the second-youngest in the NBA and the youngest playoff qualifier since the 2010-11 Oklahoma City Thunder, tries to continue a remarkable early playoff run.
The Grizzlies have already defeated the San Antonio Spurs in a do-or-die matchup to open the play-in tournament, then bested the Golden State Warriors on the road two nights later to claim the No. 8 seed. If the Game 1 victory at Vivint was viewed as a fluke, a Game 2 victory with Mitchell on the floor will not be, but that is easier said than done.
“Obviously, he is an elite playmaker,” Jenkins said. “He plays with great force getting downhill, finishing, floating. He’s got great balance, good 3-point shooter, great playmaker, he’s just going to add another playmaker to a stacked team with a bunch of playmakers. The physicality and aggressiveness that he plays with, the spirit that he plays with, it’s another dynamic that we need to account for. He’s a focal point, for sure, among great depth.”