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For one primary reason, and about a thousand secondary ones, all eyes were fixed on Donovan Mitchell against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 2 at Vivint Arena on Wednesday night.
Crassly put, to see if Utah’s star guard was … fixed.
To see if, in turn, he could fix the Jazz.
They needed fixing.
If he really was, they were, the way Doctor Donovan had said he and they would be upon his return, the chances for the Jazz to even the first-round playoff series, to place the Spalding back on its proper axis, would be greatly enhanced.
If he wasn’t, they weren’t … well, say a prayer for the poor, poor, pitiful Jazz.
Save your supplications, Utah.
What happened without Mitchell in the initial game — a loss — did not happen again.
Had that been the sorry case, a season of promise would have been ratcheted down to a postseason of panic. The eighth seed knocking the top seed over the edge of a cliff, left to dangle there by the grip of a single hand, heading back to Memphis for a two-game road set.
But — glory hallelujah — there Mitchell was, taking the floor in live action with his ‘mates for the first time in 40 days and 40 nights, waiting as he had, even amid serious disputation stirred out of Sunday night’s herky-jerky go-no-go delay, for his ankle to find its footing once more, to be given permission to find its footing.
Alas, permission was granted.
And the fixing got done.
“Amazing,” was the word used by Rudy Gobert to describe Mitchell’s reemergence. “He was aggressive, creating for himself and for everybody else.”
The result featured Mitchell not at his best, but at a kind of enabled stage that was good enough to bump the Jazz to a 141-129 victory and grant them relief rather than relegation. That was the most points the Jazz have ever scored in a playoff game.
Mitchell appeared, especially early on, fully able to move and jump and cut and stop and pop — to the tune of 12 points in the opening minutes, in the same manner he had before he got injured, all of which either solidified justification for his claim in the pregame on Sunday that he was, in fact, ready and able to play, and that he should have played, or firmed up the opposite, that waiting another 72 hours, as the powers that be in the organization had insisted, was the correct call.
Which was it?
Beats me. You decide.
Either way, Mitchell looked capable, if only slightly compromised from the rust, and the Jazz most definitely benefited from that fact.
He scored 25 points, hitting five of 10 bombs, taking shots that varied in touch and type and technique, but that often enough dusted the net.
Most important was his presence on the floor, symbolically, if not numerically, on Wednesday night, the Jazz’s leader back where he wanted to be, helping and inspiring his team.
He didn’t fall for the temptation to try to do too much, rather just enough to guide his team into a more favorable groove.
“He let the game come to him,” Quin Snyder said. “He was patient. … He really played within himself, he made the right plays. It’s good to have him back. [He] changes our team.”
And that’s precisely what the 24 year old has become, a difference-maker, the undisputed boss of the Jazz. There are lesser players on the roster who might wish they could be like Mitchell, maybe envious of his talent and his role, his license to take over the offense at critical moments, but even Gobert acknowledges that the Jazz are Mitchell’s team.
He’s the one with the heavy responsibility, not just as a guard, but as a vanguard, as the team’s foremost scoring force, with the charisma, the flash and the panache, the style and substance to give the Jazz a lift when needed, when adversity strikes. As valuable as Gobert is, and he’s every bit of that, likely the Jazz’s most important player, it is Mitchell who is the most influential.
He’s the one who sweats and bleeds over into everyone and everything else.
“His spirt,” Snyder said, “there’s a competitive spirit he has. You can feel it when he plays.”
That much was evident in Game 2.
Indeed, Mitchell’s fire spread to those around him, particularly teammates who had suffered from a large dose of inefficiency in the opening game. In the second one, seven players scored in double figures, the Jazz making 54 percent of their attempts, 49 percent from deep.
Mike Conley had 20 points, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson combined for 30. Bojan Bogdanovic got 18. Royce O’Neale had 14.
Gobert was effective at both ends, going for 21 points and hauling 13 boards. He blocked four attempts.
“Everybody came out with great focus,” he said.
“Our team is getting reconnected,” Snyder said.
It wasn’t all daffodils and daisies. There were moments of concern, the Jazz giving up a 22-point lead in the third quarter, seeing it whittled down to all but nothing over a stretch that either crowned the Grizzlies as one of the best offenses on the planet, what with Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks being unstoppable, or indicted the Jazz’s defense as a liability.
Over two fistfuls of minutes, it was a whole lot of both.
“They were terrific,” Snyder said. “… We lost focus.”
Making matters worse, Mitchell tweaked his tender ankle on a drive to the basket, sending him temporarily to the locker room.
Mitchell returned to the game midway through the fourth quarter, and the Jazz rolled with enough offense to hold off the visitors, although they never really curtailed the Grizzlies’ attack.
Morant totaled 47 points, Brooks had 23, Jonas Valanciunas got 18.
That indicates leftover problems that have yet to be repaired and that could cause more trouble as the series now moves to Memphis.
But with Mitchell back, the Jazz took care of their business from distance, hitting 19 3-pointers, Gobert , as mentioned, worked his wonders inside, the Jazz moved the ball, getting into their rhythm, into their flow.
The highest highlights came in two pinnacles, the first with minutes left on the clock, the Jazz up comfortably, when Mitchell rolled the ball around and into the basket, punching jabs into the air, boosting the crowd into a frenzy, and later, when after tumbling to the floor, Mitchell was subbed out to thunderous applause.
And there it was.
Mitchell was Mitchell again, and the Jazz were the Jazz.
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.