When Donovan Mitchell drove the lane, elevated, then landed and immediately grabbed at his left hamstring in Monday night’s Game 5, there was 4:55 remaining in the game.
And the Utah Jazz were trailing the Dallas Mavericks by 28 points in what proved to be a rout.
The Jazz announced Tuesday afternoon that Mitchell was examined earlier in the day by the team’s medical staff, and underwent an MRI on his hamstring, which came back negative for any structural damage. He was diagnosed with “bi-lateral quadriceps contusions,” and will continue treatment, but his status for Thursday’s Game 6 will not be updated until Wednesday.
The situation makes for potentially intriguing series bookends: Dallas’ Luka Doncic missed the beginning of the series after suffering an injury in what turned out to be a meaningless final regular-season game for the Mavs; and Mitchell potentially could miss the end of the series after getting hurt when he didn’t need to be on the court anymore.
And so, as news of Mitchell’s injury spread on Monday night, it inevitably prompted backlash from a contingent of the Utah fanbase wondering what Mitchell and other key players were still doing in the game with the outcome long a forgone conclusion.
Indeed, with Mitchell hobbling and unable to run back on defense, Jordan Clarkson committed a foul at the 4:41 mark to stop the game and allow Mitchell to sub out. It wasn’t until that point that coach Quin Snyder decided to make the platoon swap and remove each of the four starters and his sixth man (Clarkson, Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley) who’d still been playing.
There were no deep reserves waiting at the scorers’ table — if not for Mitchell’s injury, Utah’s key rotation pieces presumably would have stayed on the court awhile longer.
Snyder has long been criticized by some for keeping his stars and starters in for unnecessarily long times in blowouts. But is it a valid critique?
Let’s take a look.
Keep in mind, this is more an anecdotal assessment than a purely analytical one, as it’s inherently a subjective exercise in many respects.
For instance, how much of a margin constitutes a “blowout”? At what point in the game must that margin be reached? And not be breached? At what point should the plug be pulled? And who should be shut down — just stars? Starters? All key rotation pieces? And how do other factors such as roster short-handedness, back-to-back slates of games, et cetera factor in?
For our purposes here, we’ll deem a game to be a “blowout” if the final margin was 15 or more points. Again, it’s imperfect: what if the margin was 12 with a second to go, at which point a meaningless 3 was hit? What if the margin was 17 with a second to go, at which point a meaningless 3 was hit? We’ll have to live with the shortcomings of the defining parameters.
At any rate, the Jazz had 28 games this season either won or lost by at least 15 points. Game play-by-plays were then examined to determine at what point of the game the last of the Jazz’s four primary stars — defined here as Gobert, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and Conley — subbed out, and what the game’s score was at that point.
Here’s a breakdown:
DATE, FINAL MARGIN & OPP, LAST STAR REMOVED (SCORE AT TIME)
Oct. 20, +21 vs. OKC, Mitchell exits at 3:14, 4Q (103-79)
Oct. 28, +31 vs. HOU, Bogdanovic exits at 4:40, 4Q (115-80)
Nov. 4, +18 vs. ATL, Bogdanovic exits at 2:05, 4Q (111-90)
Nov. 16, +35 vs. PHI, Bogdanovic exits at 5:25, 4Q (109-78)
Nov. 18, +16 vs. TOR, Gobert exits at 2:48, 4Q (117-96)
Nov. 20, +18 vs. SAC, Bogdanovic until buzzer; Mitchell/Gobert exit at 1:46, 4Q (119-100)
Nov. 27, +22 vs. NOP, Gobert exits at 7:48, 4Q (112-72)
Nov. 29, +22 vs. POR, Multiple starters exit at 2:16, 4Q (124-102)
Dec. 8, +32 vs. MIN, Gobert exits at 3:24, 4Q (127-98)
Dec. 9, +22 vs. PHI, Bogdanovic exits at 2:30, 4Q (113-92)
Dec. 11, +25 vs. WAS, Starters exit at 2:51, 4Q (110-90)
Dec. 15, +21 vs. LAC, Starters exit at 3:49, 4Q (119-97)
Dec. 29, +15 vs. POR, Bogdanovic exits at 47.9, 4Q (120-105)
Jan. 12, -20 vs. CLE, Starters exit at 3:13, 4Q (106-88)
Jan. 16, +23 vs. DEN, Starters exit at 2:47, 4Q (119-100)
Jan. 30, -20 vs. MIN, Bogdanovic plays until buzzer; Conley exits at 2:11, 4Q (117-97)
Feb. 4, +23 vs. BKN, Bogdanovic exits at 7:20, 4Q, 115-84)
Feb. 9, +26 vs. GSW, Starters exit at 3:38, 4Q (101-72)
Feb. 11, +15 vs. ORL, Starters exit at 1:22, 4Q (111-93)
Feb. 14, +34 vs. HOU, Starters exit at 3:45, 4Q (123-95)
March 4, -34 vs. NOP, Starters exit at 12:00, 4Q (95-63)
March 9, +38 vs. POR, Mitchell exits at 4:18, 3Q (86-43)
March 16, +15 vs. CHI, Gobert/Mitchell exit at 2:20, 4Q (123-106)
March 18, +29 vs. LAC, Gobert/Conley exit at 12:00, 4Q (95-58)
March 20, +15 vs. NYK, Mitchell/Gobert play until buzzer
March 23, -28 vs. BOS, Mitchell exits at 4:47, 4Q (112-83)
April 6, +36 vs. OKC, Gobert exits at 8:21, 4Q (118-87)
April 10, +31 vs. POR, Gobert exits at 7:23, 4Q (87-62)
So, what do we learn?
There were three occasions when at least one of those four key players was on the court all the way until the final horn — Bogdanovic in an 18-point win vs. the Kings on Nov. 18, and again in a 20-point loss to the Wolves on Jan. 30; and both Mitchell and Gobert in a 15-point victory over the Knicks on March 20. (The Sacramento game was a blowout with 7ish minutes left; Utah never got closer than 16 vs. Minnesota with 5:39 to play; the New York game, though, was as close as four points with 4:48 left.)
But there were also three occasions when no one among that quartet played a single second of the fourth quarter: Everyone checked out before the start of the fourth in a 34-point loss to the Pelicans on March 4 (they trailed by 32 at the time), and again in a 29-point victory over the Clippers on March 18 (they led by 37 after three quarters); and in their 38-point win over the Blazers on March 9, no one played past the 4:18 mark of the third quarter, when Mitchell checked out with the Jazz leading 86-43.
But what about the games that fall somewhere between those two extremes?
Well, much as Snyder has claimed this season that a double-digit lead in the modern NBA is not all that significant, can we stipulate that, say, a 20-point margin with less than four minutes to play is sufficiently indicative of the ultimate outcome? Let’s do that.
There were 10 such occasions for Snyder and the Jazz this season, where starters were in past the 4-minute mark with their team either leading or trailing by 20 or more. In fairness, there were a few occasions where the players remained in just a matter of 10 or 20 seconds past that marker. Then again, there were other cases where multiple players played multiple extra minutes with the game out of hand.
One particularly intriguing case came in back-to-back routs on Dec. 8 and 9 — 32- and 22-point victories over the Wolves and Sixers, respectively. In such a scenario, you’d perhaps expect Snyder to pull the plug as soon as possible (especially on the first night) to get players some extra rest. But in the opener against Minnesota, Gobert did not check out until there was 3:24 remaining, with the Jazz leading 127-98 at the time. The next night, in Philly, Bogdanovic remained in until the 2:30 mark, when Utah’s lead was 113-92.
Conversely, including those aforementioned three games where none of the stars played at all in the fourth, there were eight games among the blowouts where Snyder had everyone of consequence off the floor with five or more minutes to play.
Is that enough? Again it’s subjective.
What about circumstances that mimic or replicate those of Monday’s Game 5, when four stars and the sixth man were all in the game despite a 20-plus-point margin with roughly 5 minutes to play?
Turns out, there were 10 such cases:
STARS IN W/20-PLUS-POINT MARGIN ~ 5-MINUTE MARK
Oct. 20 - led OKC 99-75
Oct. 28 - led HOU 113-80
Nov. 20 - led SAC 113-92
Dec. 8 - led MIN 118-95
Dec. 9 - led PHI 106-86
Dec. 29 - led POR 111-91
Feb. 9 - led GSW 98-72
Feb. 14 - led HOU 119-95
March 9 - led POR 109-76
March 23 - trailed BOS 110-83
Does this illustrate a pattern of recklessness, as exemplified by Mitchell’s scare in Dallas? No.
In some cases, the games were relatively close for a time, then blown open late. Surely in some scenarios, Snyder felt concerned that taking starters out prematurely could enable an opponent’s comeback — it’s not like the Jazz were rock-solid this season with double-digit advantages, after all.
Meanwhile, given that the Jazz won 24 of those 28 blowouts, it’s hard to argue he was keeping guys in to try and mount comebacks: the losses to New Orleans and Boston were complete annihilations, and the one to Minnesota also pretty hopeless; perhaps you could make that argument about the 20-point loss to Cleveland on Jan. 20.
What these examples do show, though, is that there is at least some tendency on Snyder’s part to leave stars in beyond when casual observers feel the game is effectively over. But as we’ve established, that’s a subjective line a head coach must navigate.