The Jazz can breathe a sigh of relief. Their first-round series with a feisty Grizzlies squad isn’t over—far from it—but Wednesday night offered several optimistic signs after a dispiriting home loss in Game 1. The series is now even. The team’s shooting touch returned after briefly disappearing. And its brightest perimeter star is back in the rotation after 40 missed days with an ankle sprain.
Donovan Mitchell returned to the starting lineup in Game 2, helping power Utah to a 141-129 win. Mitchell was a late and controversial scratch from Game 1, and after an upset win from Memphis, the Jazz couldn’t afford to rest him any longer. And Mitchell showed why on Wednesday, totaling a team-high 25 points in 26 minutes and providing numerous reminders of his talents along the way. It turns out—surprise!—it’s easier for a no. 1 seed to win games with all of its best players around.
“We missed him,” Utah star Rudy Gobert said after the game. “We needed his energy, his positivity, his talent. Tonight was a great night to have him back.”
Still just 24 years old and in his fourth season, Mitchell is not a perfect player. Most notably, he isn’t as efficient a scorer as other top no. 1 options around the league. Among 17 players this season with a usage rate of 30-plus percent, Mitchell ranked just 14th in true shooting percentage; among 14 such players last season, he ranked 11th.
If Utah advances to the second round, Mitchell won’t be the best scorer on the court against either the Mavericks, with Luka Doncic, or the Clippers, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
But Mitchell offers a singular scoring dynamic for this Utah roster. The nine-man rotation features five creators, all with different skill sets: Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jordan Clarkson. Unique among that group are Mitchell’s one-on-one ability and shotmaking panache—crucial skills at the end of close playoff games. Mitchell had by far the team’s highest usage rate in clutch situations this season.
Mitchell’s return also yields ripple effects that make all his teammates’ roles simpler. Ingles can shift out of the starting lineup to bolster the bench unit. Conley, with 15 assists Wednesday, can shift into more of a distribution role rather than a scoring role. Bogdanovic and Clarkson can more precisely pick their spots on offense. And that’s to say nothing of the difficult choices Mitchell thrusts on the opponent, which must slot its best perimeter defender on Mitchell, worsening its defense on all of Utah’s other options.
“It changes the matchups,” coach Quin Snyder said, “when you have multiple guys capable of going out and making plays.”
Most of all, if the top-seeded Jazz are to fulfill their lofty ambitions this season—their first conference finals trip since 2007; their first Finals appearance since 1998, when Mitchell wasn’t yet 2 years old; their first championship trophy ever—then Mitchell will need to match the Lukas or Kawhis, the LeBrons or Bookers, and the Durants or Embiids along the way.
Wednesday offered a strong start, not just because of Mitchell’s return, but because of how he looked. The Jazz needn’t look further than the 2-7 series just below them in the Western bracket to see that just because a player is back on the court doesn’t necessarily mean he’s back to 100 percent. Utah was fairly cautious re-integrating Mitchell in Game 2, playing him for only 26 minutes, behind five teammates in court time.
In the first half, Mitchell mostly stuck to the perimeter, with just one make and two attempts inside the paint—similar to how LeBron James, also returning from an ankle injury, isn’t currently bulldozing defenders to the rim like he usually does. But in the second half, Mitchell perked up in the paint, with half of his made shots coming close to the basket, including a twisting and-1 in transition that saw him hit the floor, then bounce back up to sink his free throw.
Of course, if Mitchell’s canning half his 3-point attempts, as he was Wednesday, he should forget about the rim and keep letting it fly. He’s a career 36 percent 3-point shooter in the regular season, and he was at a meager 29 percent combined across his first two playoff runs. But in seven games against Denver last postseason, as Mitchell lit the world aflame, he made 52 percent of his long-range tries. That’s a small sample, to be sure, but an incredibly enticing one nonetheless. That player can lead a championship team.
The team’s shooting efforts extend well beyond Mitchell, but they undoubtedly feed off of him. In Game 2, Utah posted a franchise playoff record 141 points, showcasing the team’s immense offensive potential when clicking. The Jazz set an NBA record with 16.7 made 3-pointers per game this regular season. In Game 1 without Mitchell, they shot just 12-for-47, or 26 percent—their second-worst showing in any game this season. In Game 2, with Mitchell back, they made their more standard 19 triples, at a 49 percent clip.
Sometimes, analysis is simple, and Utah evinced rather striking splits based on its long-range performance this season. In a make-or-miss league, it’s easier to win when shots are going in.
Jazz Record by 3-Point Percentage
|30% or Lower
|Between 30% and 40%
|40% or Higher
Although they’re the heavy favorites, with an 86 percent chance to advance, per The Ringer’s Odds Machine, the Jazz aren’t yet in the clear. Memphis has put forth a plucky fight thus far, stealing Game 1 and then cutting a 20-point halftime deficit to just two in Game 2 before Utah pulled away. And the Jazz can’t seem to figure out a way to keep Ja Morant away from the basket; the second-year guard scored a career-high 47 points Wednesday, the most points any Grizzlies player has ever scored in a game, regular or postseason.
Gobert stuffed one ferocious dunk attempt from Morant …
RUDY GOBERT— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) May 27, 2021
I love the fact Ja Morant tested him. What a block by the DPOY pic.twitter.com/XgbuA3KI29
… but the Grizzlies guard wasn’t deterred and often got the better of his exchanges near the hoop, making all six of his shots in the restricted section and drawing 20 free throw attempts (15 makes). With a slightly less scorching 3-point performance from Utah, or a bit less foul trouble from various Memphis starters, the Grizzlies could have taken Game 2 and a 2-0 lead.
Yet Utah is a better team from top to bottom, and the Jazz should be able to win this series without going seven games. For all the skepticism about Utah’s playoff ability after a dominant regular season, it’s worth remembering that these Jazz have never squandered a real title opportunity; they were always the underdog in their respective series losses. In the Gobert era, the Jazz had never hosted a Game 1 until last weekend. In fact, the last time Utah hosted a first-round series at all, its leaders in minutes were Bryon Russell, Karl Malone, and John Stockton.
As the challenges mount during this playoff run, however—and they’re already here, and will only grow in successive series—the Jazz will need to call on the full scope of their collective powers. That’s where Mitchell comes in, and his fleet of sweet-shooting wingmen. The gang’s all together now—so the Jazz had better win, or else they will have no excuses if their plans go awry.