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Donovan Mitchell Is the Rookie of the Playoffs

The Jazz topped the Thunder and will return to Utah with the series tied, 1-1

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

After his team dropped Game 1 against a white-hot Paul George, Donovan Mitchell carried the Jazz on his back in the fourth quarter of Game 2 to tie the series, 1-1. Here are three takeaways from the game:

I’mma Let Ben Simmons Finish, but Donovan Mitchell Is the Greatest Playoff Rookie of All Time

Mitchell just logged one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent memory. Now in the playoffs, he might be getting even better.

After carrying the Jazz on offense during the regular season, Mitchell has continued his otherworldly rise in the playoffs. Despite a foot injury that made him a game-time decision for Game 2, Mitchell scored 28 points on 10-of-25 shooting to seal a 102-95 win for the Jazz to tie the series.

But until the end of the third quarter, Mitchell seemed stumped. He couldn’t buy a bucket from 3 (ultimately finishing 0-for-7 from beyond the arc) and had just 10 points to that point as the Jazz saw a nine-point lead flip to a 10-point deficit after the Thunder went on a 19-0 run across six minutes toward the end of the frame.

“I was just settling, letting them off the hook,” Mitchell said after the game of his cold streak. “I had to apply pressure and get to the basket.”

Get to the basket he did.

Mitchell dodged, ducked, dipped, and dived his way to the rim over, and over, and over again. Mitchell scored 12 of the Jazz’s 14 points in the stretch during which Utah retook the lead. Ben Simmons may be the Rookie of the Year, but Donovan Mitchell is the Rookie of the Playoffs.

Has Utah’s Cavalry Arrived?

Mitchell didn’t get going until late in the third quarter, but the Jazz were leading throughout first half thanks to a strong game by Derrick Favors, who had 20 points and 16 rebounds. Favors looked excellent alongside Rudy Gobert, who finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds and anchored the paint. OKC head coach Billy Donovan said after the game that the way the two of them were rebounding was a major problem for his team—welcome news for the Jazz after a season of lingering questions about how that frontcourt pairing works together.

Meanwhile, in the backcourt, the world tilted off its axis as Ricky Rubio went 5-for-8 from 3-point range and finished with 22 points. Rubio started 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, a performance that made up for a lackluster game from Joe Ingles—three points, two rebounds, and two assists in 34 minutes—who looked exhausted guarding Playoff P.

The Jazz have been looking for someone to lighten Mitchell’s offensive burden all season. Whether this performance from the supporting cast was an aberration or the new normal will define the Jazz’s playoff hopes.

Can the Big Three (Big Two?) Beat Utah’s Fourth-Quarter Defense?

Playoff P melted Utah in Game 1, but he cooled off in Game 2 along with the rest of the Thunder’s “Big Three” (a generous term for a grouping that includes washed Melo). Melo, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook combined to go 0-for-14 in the fourth quarter to close a game they lost by seven points. Anthony finished 2-for-9 from 3-point range, and his 17 points came mostly from his anachronistic ball-stopping game. George and Westbrook took turns keeping the Thunder in the game, but each disappeared for stretches—Westbrook went without a field goal from late in the first quarter to the middle of the third quarter—and neither was able to make anything happen on either end when it mattered. If they can’t bounce back, nothing else in this series might matter.

Adding to the Thunder’s concerns is that Steven Adams arm appeared to be hampered in Game 2 after he took out a personal vendetta against an innocent basketball rim in Game 1.

The Thunder didn’t categorize Adams’s wrist as injured after Game 1, but he entered Wednesday’s game with it wrapped and was icing it on the bench during the game. As ESPN’s Royce Young noted:

The Thunder, couldn’t defend the boards as a result. Halfway through the second quarter, the Jazz had nine offensive boards—equal to their per-game average during the regular season. It got worse when Adams got into foul trouble and was forced to sit for long stretches in the third quarter. He eventually fouled out with OKC down 93-91 with 2:48 left in the game.

Adams is the selfless offensive-rebound machine/enforcer/anime enthusiast of the Thunder. Perhaps he will make a full recovery by Saturday’s Game 3 in Salt Lake City. If not, all those Thunder shots clanking off the rim might hurt a little more without a full-strength Adams to regain some of those possessions.