Gordon Monson: Donovan Mitchell knows the secret to the Utah Jazz’s ascent to an NBA title — and it burns

Last season’s second-round exit didn’t sit well with the All-Star guard and his teammates

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell a 126-110 win over Memphis to advance in the playoffs last June. Mitchell and the Jazz report to training camp next week for the start of the 2021-22 season.

“Ninety percent of the game is half mental.”

Yogi Berra is credited with uttering that famous line about baseball, and while the great mitt-wearing philosopher confessed that a lot of the things he said he never actually said, he did take ownership of that one.

The twisted, lopsided redundancy of the equation works for basketball, too, as a matter of reiteration, unbalanced though it is.

As the Utah Jazz assemble themselves now for another NBA run, that Yogi-ism will work for or against them, depending on … them.

Not in some Einsteinian way, not buried in X’s and O’s, not in notions of rotating defense and implementation of efficient ball movement. Sure, those parts will play their roles, as will others, being of good use, connecting it all together. But before any of that takes hold, there are more important matters of the mind to attend to: resilience and attitude.

And, according to Donovan Mitchell, one more: fire.

“We need to come in with an edge,” he says, “a little fire in us.”

This is his reasoning: “We’ve made our mark over the past two years. Obviously we didn’t do it winning in the playoffs, but we’re at a point where teams know who we are, teams are coming after us. Now, we’ve got to come out there with a fire in ourselves and, you know, like, ‘We’re here. This is who we are.’ …

“Deal with it, suckers.”

OK, like Yogi, Mitchell didn’t actually say what he said, not that last part, anyway, but … he might have meant it.

His message, though, is more for himself and his teammates, not for anyone on the outside.

“We brought everybody back,” he says. “We’ve also made some adjustments, some good additions with Eric [Paschall], Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside and Jared [Butler]. That’ll be huge for us, just continuing to build. But we’ve got to come out with fire. That’s what this year should be for us. We’ve got to put in the work.”

Mitchell says this abbreviated offseason, after his hurting ankle healed, he got in the gym in an effort to improve his own game, to nudge it forward in the manner he has every previous summer:

“The biggest thing is shooting off the dribble, being more consistent in that way, being more consistent in general. A lot of it is read-based for me, slowing the game down, being able to cut down on turnovers, being more efficient with the ball. But also on the defensive end. Believe it or not, I’ve been doing lots of slides to pick it up at that end.”

He’s right on all counts, specifically that needed improvement on defense. That’s what a player set on being a difference-maker does.

He summed it up thusly: “Just being an all-around better player. That’s been my thing.”

Mitchell is orbiting now in an ionospheric realm, as the Jazz’s star and leader, he must counter whatever it is that the best player(s), the elite player(s), on the other best teams bring.

Talent and … fire.

And he expects his teammates to enflame their own talents with the same mental edge, because he’s learned that’s what winning, especially in the playoffs, requires.

An attitude of anger, focus, determination and hunger.

Like a pack of Plott Hounds on a tray of T-bones.

It’s the primary factor, Mitchell figures, that can heal the Jazz’s postseason disappointment of the past and accelerate the positives, incumbent and new, toward a more favorable outcome this next time around.

Good health is a key, too.

When we last saw the Jazz, they were in a thick fog, losing as they did in the playoffs to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was a bad scene. The Jazz were limping beside themselves, behind themselves, in front of themselves, stumbling over themselves.

Fact is, they weren’t themselves. They didn’t want to be themselves.

They wanted to be champions, had said so all season, but they weren’t champions, weren’t good or healthy enough to be.

Losing four straight in that second-round ouster was in no way satisfactory to them, nor should it have been. And yet, there were reasons beyond just an absence of a particular talent. Go back and watch the worst of those games, that result and the health issues plaguing Mitchell and Mike Conley slap you across the face. And, yeah, there was also the fact that the Jazz weren’t versatile enough to handle what the Clips were throwing at them.

That failing, after losing three straight to the Nuggets the season before in the first round, was most bitter.

All of the Jazz, as you would hope and expect, were bummed. But it blew past just that. Mitchell wasn’t frustrated, he was distraught, looking for balm here, there, everywhere. Rudy Gobert, Conley, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, the whole crew, including coach Quin Snyder and his assistants, were troubled.

Things had to be put right.

Doing that takes more than just a couple offseason moves. That’s a start. It’s not the finish.

The addition of Gay, Whiteside, Paschall and Butler will help with the logistics and the flexibility, but there’s that other aspect to the regathering of this team.

Yogi’s 90-percent aspect, the half mental.

Mitchell appears to be healed up — in his ankle, in his head. What about the others?

If they’ve exorcized last postseason’s overall experience while remembering the specifics of what they learned from their mistakes and their pain, they’ll launch onto a better path.

Like Mitchell says, with a sharp edge.

Remember, this was the team with the best regular-season record in the league, a team whose aim ratcheted higher and higher as the wins stacked up, and when the winning mattered most, its reward was a kick to the onions.

It’s a difficult thing the Jazz are reaching for — that ultimate trophy. Standing solitarily triumphant at the end is not the way to bet for any single team. This is not the NBA of a few years ago, when the Warriors could be penned in — not penciled — as prizewinners before the opening tip. How far away were the Bucks from falling short last season? An inch, the length of Kevin Durant’s big toe atop the 3-point line.

Regardless of the arduous nature of the climb, Mitchell wants more, as presumably do his teammates. A second-round loss suits him and them not well, at all. Even making it to the Western Conference finals would have been seen and felt as advancement.

Not … what actually happened.

The solution, beyond the needed additions, beyond the important technical aspects and adjustments, is in their heads.

The strength of their minds, their attitudes, their resilience.

Their fire.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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