No Donovan? No Mike and Joe? Utah Jazz show they’re capable of adapting without their big playmakers

Despite three straight games of missing one or more of their primary ball-handlers, the Jazz were able to get by just in sharpening their focus upon ball movement and defense.

(Adam Fondren | The Associated Press) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looks for a shot as Minnesota Timberwolves center Naz Reid (11) and guard Patrick Beverley (22) defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

As Donovan Mitchell was subbed out for the final time Friday night with 2:28 left to play, he smacked his hands together in frustration and let loose a mild curse word beginning with “d” and ending in “amn.”

Not because the Utah Jazz lost, mind you. No, they were leading by 21 at the time and on their way to a 120-108 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Turns out, his disappointment was of a slightly more vainglorious nature.

“I wanted 40,” Mitchell revealed with a hint of sheepishness. “It was no secret I wanted it. But it didn’t happen. If I make a free throw, there you go. So it’s really on me at that point.”

As a result, the All-Star guard had to settle for a mere season-high of 39 points, and a cringeworthy 9-for-10 performance at the line, to go along with a pedestrian six made 3-pointers, half a dozen rebounds, and five assists.

Seriously — do better, Don.

Actually, the most intriguing bit of Mitchell’s prolific scoring night was neither how close he came to the desired milestone nor his disappointment at just missing it, but rather that he racked up a season-high in points mere hours after discussing how he would inevitably be playing a bit differently in the joint absence of primary ball-handlers and orchestrators Mike Conley and Joe Ingles, but how he needed to resist the temptation to unnaturally contort his game into becoming “this 12-assist guy.”

As it turns out, each of the Jazz’s past three games have been an exercise in adjustment, first as the team had to navigate matchups in San Antonio and Portland as Mitchell himself sat out with a minor back ailment, and then again Friday, without Conley and Ingles.

Perhaps counterintuitively, coach Quin Snyder suggested it’s not a matter of seismic shifts, but simply more nuanced recalibration.

“It’s less apparent for us,” Snyder said ahead of the Blazers game. “You see it in playmaking situations where Don and Mike are able to create, so when one of them isn’t playing, that offensive flow tends to spread itself for us across other guys, particularly in late-game situations or at the end of the shot clock. If one of them’s not on the floor, matchups change a little bit, the way that teams are able to guard you changes.

“It’s not really something we talk about right now, like, ‘Someone’s got to pick that up,’ so to speak. Our guys kind of feel that,” he added. “… It’s there, it’s more subtle for us. Because we have a lot of playmakers to absorb it.”

To the coach’s point, without Mitchell available, Utah simply plugged Ingles into the starting lineup, and both the scoring and playmaking burdens were spread out a bit.

Against the Spurs, six players scored in double figures, led by Jordan Clarkson’s 23. As for the ball distribution, Clarkson ramped up his assists to a team-best five, and Ingles had three, but each of Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Trent Forrest, and Rudy Gay had two apiece.

In Wednesday’s blowout of the Blazers, six players scored between 15 and 22 points, while Conley had six assists, Clarkson another five, Ingles three, and Bogdanovic, Forrest, and Royce O’Neale contributed two each.

Mitchell noticed the trend.

“The three games I’ve missed [including Nov. 4 vs. Atlanta], we’ve done a great job just moving the ball,” he said. “You look at the scoring, the shots, it’s pretty [spread out]. Mike has 10, Joe has 13 — it’s pretty [well-distributed] throughout the lineup. The past few games, Rudy has been phenomenal down low. Honestly, we’ve done a great job just continuing to move the ball and initiating offense. When you have guys like Joe, like JC, Trent, guys who initiate, move the ball, that are experienced, that know what they’re doing, know our offense, it’s fairly easy. … I don’t plan on making that a habit to be out, but in [that] event, it’s great to know that those guys have my back.”

Then, on Friday, it was time to return the favor. Not that the situations were entirely analogous.

Conley’s absence was a planned rest day, with the Jazz set for a back-to-back on Saturday against the league-leading Warriors. However, they couldn’t simply plug in Ingles this time, as he was also out with a low left back strain.

Forrest, the second-year point guard on a two-way contract, first got an inkling at the morning shootaround that he might be starting that night, when Ingles began to razz him. He got confirmation from a few assistant coaches when he arrived at Vivint Arena later that evening.

“Nerves-wise, it wasn’t too bad. I probably would say I was more excited than anything,” Forrest said afterward. “Donovan is one of the main guys that’s always telling me that they trust me. When you have a guy like that saying that, I’m not gonna say it’s not hard [not] to be nervous, but he makes it easy to just come in and do what I do.”

Still, there is an inherent understanding that, in situations such as that, Mitchell would be responsible for the heavy lifting.

He spoke beforehand about what he’d be trying to do differently — or not — given the circumstances.

“Mike’s good at coming down and having plays in his back pocket. I kind of try and take that. Ricky [Rubio] was the same way when he was here. When those guys have been out, I try and take it upon myself to continue to — not necessarily try to be them, but try to find ways to get guys into their spots, just do what I’ve been doing but at a higher level,” Mitchell said. “On a night like tonight, I’ve got to create, I’ve got to run plays and make it easier on guys. … That’s been my job. And when those guys are out, it’s even more important that I do that. But not put too much pressure [on myself], where I’ve got to be this 12-assist guy. I’ve [done] that before, where I put too much pressure on that. Just go out there and play my game and make the right reads and go from there.”

For the most part, the Jazz were successful at that.

The Forrest minutes were a bit of an adventure, as he was a team-worst minus-15 on the night, though Mitchell would make it a point afterward to note that he was “very happy with Trent Forrest and what he did.” The third quarter, where the ball movement slowed considerably, was also something of a disaster, as Utah managed only 23 points on 8-for-21 shooting, while also turning it over five times.

But otherwise …

“We played the right way for the most part of the game,” Gobert said.

On both sides of the ball.

While the Jazz had a relatively muted 18 assists for the game owing to their whopping 41 free-throw attempts, it was their efforts on defense that had them talking afterward.

Gobert noted it was stringing together stops that enabled the transition opportunities that led to the pivotal 22-0 fourth-quarter run that changed the game. And Snyder, after wondering beforehand how Mitchell would handle the rare task of defending on-ball for the majority of the game, raved afterward about the job the guard did shadowing Minnesota’s two primary perimeter scorers, Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley.

“That was big that he wanted that matchup, particularly given the load he was carrying offensively,” Snyder said.

A year ago, the Jazz’s season unraveled when both Mitchell and Conley were hurt at the same time. This week, they took a few steps toward showing that, just maybe, they’re a little better equipped to deal with those players’ absences than they have been.

Not that they relish doing it.

“Those guys are the head of the snake,” said Forrest. “… When you don’t have those guys out there, it makes it a little bit tougher to feel out the game.”