The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell’s season-high 39 points bursts Jazz to 4th quarter runaway victory over Timberwolves

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45).

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 120-108 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Donovan Mitchell’s best game of the season?

It was his season-high in points, with 39. So under the #PointsAreEverything perspective, yes it was! Case closed! I’m going to go celebrate New Years Eve with my friends now.

Okay, not so fast. I loved nearly everything about what Mitchell did tonight. Not only did he score a lot of points, he did it efficiently, shooting 12-21 from the field. He added six assists, and limited his turnovers to just three. And finally, he did it without much help: Mike Conley and Joe Ingles were both out for tonight’s game, putting extra playmaking pressure on his shoulders.

I love his playmaking most of all. This is beautiful, using defensive aggression against the opponents to find an open shot:

His most impressive scoring play? This one, amidst the Jazz’s 22-0 4th-quarter run. Donovan Mitchell just sizes up Anthony Edwards, who is in foul trouble, and just isolates on him. He figures Ant wouldn’t defend him as strongly, but the second-year player stays tight, fouls him — and Mitchell finishes through him anyway. It really shows off Mitchell’s improved strength.

Finally, he’s just wonderfully efficient in pick and roll this year. He’s just under control here, uses his body so well:

Indeed, he’s been the most efficient pick and roll scorer in the NBA this season.

Now, Mike Conley’s at No. 3, so you also get an idea of how useful it is to have Rudy Gobert rolling and terrific shooting around you — it’s much easier to score without significant help! But I love how both players have read those situations this year, and it can result in dominant offense, like we saw tonight.

2. Trent Forrest starts

Without Conley (rest) or Joe Ingles (back) available, it was Trent Forrest who got the start for the Jazz. He finished as a team-low -15 in those 20 minutes on the court. I thought some of it was his fault, and some of it was Forrest being a victim of circumstance.

Forrest shot just 1-3 in those 20 minutes. (But at least he got a shot up: Royce O’Neale was a full 0-0 in his 32 minutes on the court. O’Neale is a good shooter, but that skill is wasted if he doesn’t shoot.)

So you ended up with some promising possessions with unfortunate endings. This Forrest travel is a wide-open corner three turned down.

But you kind of understand why, when his actual shots end up like this:

There is a lot of good stuff that Forrest does. He’s 6-4, and his length can bother people. This is perfect “show your hands” defense to convince a referee that there’s no foul, and then force a tougher hook shot in the paint.

He’s also a terrific passer, especially inside. That unlocks some opportunities I’m not sure Gobert would get otherwise.

I remain extremely curious what Jared Butler would do in those same minutes. Tonight, I thought he was very good; he made his three, did a lot of one-touch passing, and even had a nice defensive possession against Anthony Edwards.

Overall, I expect Forrest to continue to be the emergency sub, but could also see the situation changing at the deadline if the Jazz acquire another guard. The NBA removed its 50-game limit for 2-way players, so Forrest can play as much as the Jazz want him to.

3. Excited for tomorrow

The Jazz have yet to play either of the Western Conference top two teams this season. That changes tomorrow, when the Jazz play the Warriors.

Now, it won’t be the full-strength version of the Warriors: Draymond Green is listed as OUT, in the team’s COVID health and safety protocols. He has been out the requisite five days, but Kerr said that the team felt he wouldn’t be able to clear the protocols in time — maybe he’s still sick. Regardless, he’s a gigantic part of what they do, so that’s a bit of a bummer. They also still don’t have Klay Thompson (good for the Jazz) or James Wiseman (good for the Warriors).

But there are still important and critical threats there to manage. Obviously, top of the list is Steph Curry, and I’m very interested to see how Conley, coming off a day of rest, defends him. How aggressive will the Jazz be in guarding him, and will they be able to recover?

Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole have both been excellent for the Warriors, Poole especially profiles as the kind of scoring guard that the Jazz can struggle to defend. You figure O’Neale would guard Wiggins — which means Mitchell on Poole? How will he take that matchup?

Now, I worry that Hassan Whiteside will be out for the Jazz, after missing the second half due to concussion-like symptoms tonight, which likely means small-ball minutes. This is going to be, by far, their stiffest test yet: will the Jazz actually be able to defend without a traditional center against a good offensive team? Will their lineups be able to keep track of the Warriors’ cutting-heavy system?

The Jazz’s ability to close out is going to be super important. The Jazz take the most threes in the league, the Warriors are No. 2. Can they get out to Curry, Wiggins, Poole, Otto Porter Jr., and so on?

Oh, and the Warriors are the league’s best defensive rebounding team, while the Jazz are the league’s 5th-best offensive rebounding team. Can the Jazz still get easy putbacks the way they’re used to?

I’m honestly excited to see what happens: the Jazz are on a 6-game winning streak, but this constitutes an important test of some ideas about the Jazz’s playoff abilities. I really wish Green was playing to test more of them — but it feels nice to be excited about a game against the team with the best record in the NBA anyway.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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