The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell falters down the stretch, again. Can or should he change his late-game approach?

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) steals the ball from Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 8, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 111-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. They did it again

The Jazz had a 17-point lead to begin the 4th quarter, and then they lost it. This will not be a new emotion for Jazz fans.

This week, one of my Tribune colleagues was looking to give away his tickets for that night’s game. Here was his message:

“I have two Jazz tickets for tonight, and I’m not going to make it. Pretty good seats. If you leave after three quarters, you’ll think the Jazz won. Let me know.”

You would have had a great time if you left after tonight’s 3rd quarter. The Jazz were rolling, playing incredible defense and beautiful offense. We saw some of the best blender possessions of the season, and Danuel House and Juancho Hernangomez were adding energy into the game. Former Jazz star Carlos Boozer was given a standing ovation, Grammy winner Olivia Rodrigo had courtside seats and got a customized jersey.

And then it all ended, in a hurry. The Jazz got outscored 35-13 in the 4th quarter. It’s hard to lose a quarter by that much. The Rockets, the team with the worst record in the NBA, has only lost one quarter all season by 22 points or more.

It was so predictable, too. The Jazz had an 8-point lead with 6 minutes left against the Suns. Inpredictable says that the Jazz’s odds of winning that game, against the Suns, at home, should be 93%.

On Twitter, I asked Jazz fans whether or not they’d win.

But why would you have faith in this team? After all, they did exactly the same thing last week against the Clippers and Warriors. And they’ve done it 14 other times this season, too. This team would have a 57-22 record if it weren’t for that pesky 4th quarter.

Or as Rudy Gobert said in an interview with Sam Amick:

“We’ve been playing well for three quarters; I mean, we’d be first in the league if the game ended after the third…”

He laughed — sort of. If only it weren’t true.

“Obviously, the good teams step up in the fourth,” Gobert continued. “But still — we’re not a sh---- team.”

Gobert’s right, of course. But at this point, it’s a distinction without a difference — the Jazz are still losing.

2. Donovan Mitchell’s 4th quarter woes

Donovan Mitchell has been very bad in fourth quarters recently. Since the All-Star break, he’s 29-96 from the field, 8-40 from three.

The numbers are also pretty unfriendly if you just look at the Jazz’s fourth-quarter collapses. Against the Suns tonight, he was 0-6 in the 4th. Against the Warriors, he was 0-4. He was 3-6 against the Clippers, but had three turnovers. Against the Spurs, he was 3-7 with two turnovers. In one Lakers loss, he was 2-7 in the 4th with a turnover, and in the other, he was 0-4 with a turnover.

Some of this is just small sample size misfortune. But plainly, some of this is just poor decision making — just making mistakes on the floor. Truthfully, I think the biggest problem is Mitchell’s tendency to keep dribbling and keep the ball in his hands in important possessions. It makes the Jazz’s offense predictable and very easy to stop.

Sometimes, that stickiness is only by a second. This is a good example: he comes off the screen, puts Mikal Bridges on his back. And at this point, he has the world totally under control. The lob to Gobert and the kickout to Bojan Bogdanovic are equally viable and good options. But he takes just one too many movements toward DeAndre Ayton, who’s able to strip the ball, leading to a fast break.

This counted as a block by Ayton. Was Mitchell going to shoot or pass after gathering? We don’t know, but regardless, he did it just a bit too slow.

Unfortunately, it got worse. This kind of approach... well, it’s nowhere close to the right idea.

Look, Bridges is an awesome defender. But that makes it even more important to do something in order to attack him effectively: use a screen, force a switch, or frankly, just have one of his other very capable teammates attack. You can’t just stand there and take a 20-footer. There are multiple bad shots he took similar to this in the fourth quarter, in my opinion.

Fans, I have some bad news. Mitchell did not regret his approach in his postgame press conference. When asked about what he thinks he can do better in this situation?

“Make shots,” Mitchell said. “The same shots you all may consider tough are the ones I’ve been repping all summer, all year, so I work to take those shots in those moments. I just gotta go out and hit them, there’s no other formula to it.”

There are many other formulas, Donovan. You can flow the offense away from the Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Bridges. You can use screens more effectively. You can find teammates in pick and roll situations. You can get the ball moving, so that when it comes back to you, you’re not attacking a set defense. There are many other ways of scoring besides the iso midrange hero ball that you are currently favoring.

Mitchell did say this, at the end of the press conference: “Fans, stay with us. I promise you we’ll be all right.” But fans aren’t worried whether or not Mitchell has enough self-belief — rather, it’s the opposite.

3. The losing does mask some good stuff happening

Obviously, the loss overwhelms everything. Unfortunately, the team has a general tendency to blame only the wrong reasons for their own failings. It’s not just Donovan: they’re blaming each other, the media, their shotmaking, the schedule, injuries, and so on when in reality the biggest problem is their approach to the game late.

Even Quin Snyder went on a 19-minute rant this week about how our narratives about them losing 4th quarter leads was irresponsible! Sigh. Given their inability to diagnose the problem, I don’t have an especially optimistic forecast about them turning the losing around.

Which is a bummer, because in the quarters where they’re getting these leads they’re about to blow, they’ve actually played some really fun basketball. Some of the blender possessions feel like last year’s Jazz — especially in the bench minutes with Conley leading the way.

And then, goodness, the impact of Danuel House Jr. and Juancho Hernangomez! These guys were left for dead by their teams earlier this season — multiple teams, in fact. And the since coming in for the Jazz, their energy has been palpable.

House, especially, has been tremendous. He’s running when other guys jog, getting his body around screens where other guys die on the vine. It was really him, more than any other player, that sparked the Jazz’s 3rd quarter run.

It’s entertaining, and really effective at times. If you could only remove the cancerous aspects of this team, they’d be very good. But, well, that’s easier said than done.