After the Utah Jazz squandered a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets and lost Game 7 by two points seemingly a million years ago on Sept. 1, 2020, Donovan Mitchell was disconsolate.
“We shouldn’t even have been in this situation,” he said then. “… We should have put this away. We’ll fix it.”
That series, and those feelings, were very much on Mitchell’s mind in the aftermath of this season’s elimination at the hands of the Clippers — a series that saw the Jazz surrender a 2-0 lead, fall apart in a winnable Game 5 at home, then waste a 25-point advantage in the decisive Game 6.
The parallels were too similar. It had not, in fact, been fixed after all.
And so, Mitchell was some combination of distraught, disappointed, frustrated, and lost in those postgame moments in Los Angeles.
“This hurts more than last year because we were up — again. And lost — again,” Mitchell said. “This is gonna eat at me for a long time, watching the Clippers and the Suns play in the conference finals. And even watching the Finals. I mean, we had an incredible regular season, we made pushes, and we continued to fight, but, man … this is gonna eat at me.”
No surprise there.
As Mitchell mentioned, the Jazz bounced back from last season’s disappointment and rolled to the NBA’s best regular-season record, earning home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
And yet, they could not vanquish a Clippers team missing All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard for the final two games of the series.
L.A., after dropping the first two games of the series, responded with a series of counters centered around small-ball lineups that Utah could never fully solve. The Jazz had moments of brilliance, but could not sustain them, owing perhaps to a lack of versatility.
“They made adjustments, and we had adjustments ready but we didn’t necessarily execute it as a group,” Mitchell said. “… We made great adjustments — as a coaching staff, as a team, but we just didn’t execute it on the floor, and that’s on us, it ain’t on anybody else but the guys on the floor. We were in position to win a lot of these games, and we just … didn’t.”
That the Jazz were two wins away from the Western Conference finals at all is a bit remarkable, considering their injury situation. All-Star guard Mike Conley missed the first five games of the series with recurring hamstring issues and was pretty clearly limited in Game 6.
Mitchell, meanwhile, was battling through a sprained ankle that clearly was getting progressively worse — to the point that he was officially listed as “questionable” on the team’s injury report, and had to ease his way through a slowed-down pregame workout just to be cleared to play.
Despite that, he averaged 34.8 points, 5.3 assists, and 5.0 rebounds on 45% from 3-point range against the Clippers, and dropped in an unfathomable 39/9/9 in Game 6.
“Really, his performance was heroic. The fact that he played his best when his best was needed, and yet it’s clear that he was suboptimal [health-wise], was beyond remarkable,” Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey said the following day. “It speaks to his physical talents, his mental toughness, perseverance. You guys saw [him wince] when he landed. In some ways it will get lost, because we didn’t accomplish being the last team standing or, certainly, getting to the Finals. But it was a remarkable thing to watch him.”
Mitchell, asked afterward about his ankle, acknowledged simply, “It f---ing hurts.”
But as he continued with the interview, periodically pausing his answers at certain points for several seconds of silence, a look of stunned disbelief spreading across his face, it became clear that the most severe agony he was feeling in that moment was of the mental variety, after yet another too-early postseason ouster.
“It hasn’t fully sunk in yet. I’m still in shock,” Mitchell said. “… I wasn’t ready — I’m still not mentally ready for this to be over. We worked so damn hard for us to be here, and for it to happen like this, for me and for all of us, it’s devastating.”
And yet, without needing to overtly say as much, he also was undeniably forward-looking.
He said his summer was “gonna look a little different,” because he’d be devoting time to rehabbing his ankle to be ready for next season. To that effect, he subsequently declined an invitation to play for Team USA at the coming Olympics in Tokyo.
Mitchell, as allowed this year by the NBA, did not participate in end-of-season exit interviews with media the day after the Jazz’s elimination. However, he clearly was paying attention, going so far as to like a reporter’s tweet quoting Jazz forward Royce O’Neale’s assessment of offseason priorities: “One of our downfalls, at times this season, was defense. … Having another guy to help us all out. … Probably another wing guy.”
Now the question becomes, can the Jazz find a way to sufficiently upgrade and improve the team to avoid having Mitchell speak of regret and disappointment and missed opportunities and the need to fix things next offseason, too?