Los Angeles • If you closed your eyes, you’d swear there was nothing wrong with Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell.
The points keep raining down — “Donovan Mitchell, another three on the way, got it! Butter!,” as ESPN’s Mark Jones shouted Saturday night. In Staples Center, the crowd groans. In Vivint Arena, the crowd explodes, even chanting “M-V-P” as he travels to the free-throw line.
Even in postgame news conferences, you’d hear about how everything is fine in Mitchell-land. Quin Snyder said Mitchell is “in good shape.” Mitchell said “I’m good. That’s all I got for you. I’m good.”
But for those who have their eyes peeled on this fascinating Jazz/Clippers series, it’s hard not to be concerned about the Jazz’s best guard. Seemingly every trip to the bench involves a trip to the locker room. On Saturday, he limped off the court with about seven minutes left in the game, never to return.
Mitchell would return to the bench, eventually putting his arm around Quin Snyder. The pair chatted about whether or not it made sense to have Mitchell return to the game, but with an 18-point deficit, there just wasn’t much time for Mitchell to make a substantive impact.
The disconnect about what’s being said about Mitchell’s injury and the reality of its severity isn’t anything new, indeed, it’s been the case for this injury since it occurred. Mitchell told reporters in the weeks leading up to the playoffs that the injury “wasn’t as minor as it was made out to be,” when the team initially said Mitchell would be re-evaluated just one week after his ankle buckled during a collision with Indiana Pacers’ wing Edmond Sumner.
Then, in the morning before Game 1 of the Memphis Grizzlies series, Mitchell insisted he would play. Hours later, he was ruled out by the Jazz’s medical staff, in opposition to what Mitchell’s private training staff — led by former Dwyane Wade trainer David Alexander — recommended. Now, Mitchell’s care is a collaboration between Jazz training staff and Mitchell’s training staff, according to Snyder.
The load on Mitchell would be a lot lighter if it weren’t for the absence of his backcourt mate, Mike Conley. He suffered a hamstring pull at the beginning of Game 5 of the Jazz’s first-round series, a re-aggravation of a previous injury that cost him 15 games over the course of the season.
“We’re anxious to get him back. But while he’s not, we’ve got to be able to do what we do, because at the end of the day, the Clippers don’t care,” Mitchell said. “So whenever he comes back and he’s ready to go, we’ll be ready for him because we miss that experience.”
History repeated itself with Conley — he too thought he would be ready to play by the Jazz’s first game of the second round, before being ruled out, albeit with fewer parties involved in the decision. For every game of this series, Conley has been listed as questionable the day before the game, only to be ruled out by the morning of the game itself. The first part of the pattern happened again on Sunday, before Game 4 — Conley is listed as questionable.
Before Game 3, Snyder was asked if that pattern was due to a bit of precaution, aided by the Jazz’s 2-0 lead after two games in Salt Lake City.
“No, it has nothing to do with us feeling any form of accomplishment having won a couple games,” Snyder said. “Mike’s not ready to go yet and he’s working hard every day to try to get back. ... We know how difficult the series is going to be and when Mike’s ready, he’ll be back.”
The Jazz have missed Conley. Not only would Conley have helped against the zone defense that nearly cost the Jazz Game 2, he also would have helped break down the aggressive trap they played against Mitchell in Game 3. The Jazz’s bench has been quite poor in the series, and Conley’s availability would reduce the number of minutes they have to rely on the likes of Georges Niang and Miye Oni.
Meanwhile, the Clippers have asked for huge minutes from their stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. George played nearly 44 minutes in Game 2, and both Leonard and George were on pace for 42 minutes until the end of Game 3 became enough of a blowout to give them a rest.
Leonard, in particular, has sometimes struggled with his career-long hamstring issues when asked to play too much; the Clippers frequently hold him out of back-to-back games while managing the injury. But in Saturday’s Game 3, Leonard saved his best for last: After checking in with 9:05 left in the third quarter, Leonard shot 5 for 5 from the field, adding a couple of rebounds and an assist.
As you might expect, the Jazz role players like Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson proved much stronger in the home games in the series than in the away Game 3 — you’d figure they’ll continue to need their stars at their best in Game 4, if they want to come away from Staples with a 3-1 lead.
Not only sounding at their best; looking at their best, too.
JAZZ-CLIPPERS SERIES SCHEDULE
Game 1 • Jazz 112, Clippers 109
Game 2 • Jazz 117, Clippers 111
Game 3 • Clippers 132, Jazz 106
Game 4 • June 14, 8 p.m. MT, at Los Angeles, TNT
Game 5 • June 16, time TBD, at Utah, TNT
Game 6* • June 18, time TBD, at Los Angeles, ESPN
Game 7* • June 20, time TBD, at Utah, TV TBD
* — if necessary