Donovan Mitchell is roughly eight months removed from a disappointing, uninspired, reputation-stain of a playoff series that seemingly called a halt to him ever reaching true superstar status. An exciting scorer who can make a bunch of All-Star teams and score at all three levels? Sure. But a supernova, franchise-altering first option who can go toe-to-toe with anyone in basketball through four playoff rounds? Perhaps not.
Mitchell loafed through possessions. He coughed up bad shots. He neglected to sit in a defensive stance. When the Jazz were eliminated in the first round by the Mavericks, it was fair to wonder how, when, or even if Mitchell would ever bounce back to the level he and the Jazz had enjoyed over the previous few years, let alone reach for something more.
The inevitable trade that followed in September wasn’t surprising by itself. All ensuing shock was instead thanks to which team (the Cavaliers) got him and how it’d impact the team (the Knicks) that did not. I remember thinking Cleveland gave up way too much draft capital and growing talent (in addition to three unprotected first-round picks and two swaps, the rebuilding Jazz are plenty happy with Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton). Why push so many chips in for a one-way primary ball handler, with Darius Garland coming off an All-Star season and Evan Mobley only 21 years old?
Well, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you already know why, and what Mitchell did on Monday. In a season already stacked with history-making spectacles, Mitchell’s 71-point, 11-assist, 8-rebound night belongs in the VIP room’s VIP room. The last time anything like this happened, Devin Booker dropped 70 on the Celtics in a very strange game that ended with his teammates committing intentional fouls and his coach calling unnecessary timeouts. I was there, standing outside Phoenix’s locker room as the Suns posed for pictures and doused Book in water, double-digit loss be damned.
Fast-forward 2,110 days later, Mitchell topped Booker’s feat and did it in significantly more meaningful fashion. His 58th point was a game-tying tip-in from his own intentionally missed free throw at the end of regulation, mimicking what Luka Doncic did during his own surreal 60-point triple-double last week:
That bucket sent the game into overtime, where Mitchell’s 13 additional points were nine more than the Bulls scored as a team. His teammates and coaches were rightfully flabbergasted. “In my 15 years, that’s the best performance I’ve ever seen,” Kevin Love said after the game. Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff added: “We were treated tonight to one of the greatest performances in the history of the NBA.”
Mitchell’s 71 points tied Elgin Baylor and David Robinson for the sixth-most points ever scored in a game, and gave him two more points than Michael Jordan ever scored in a game. Only Wilt Chamberlain (five times!), Kobe Bryant, and David Thompson ever tallied more. None can say they did it on fewer than 35 shots.
And with that, now is a good time to briefly touch on the season Mitchell is having for a team that’s either a bona fide title contender or one that’s extremely well-prepared to strike in the years ahead.
Mitchell’s time in Cleveland, so far, has been an extended honeymoon period. Walking onto a roster that already had two young All-Stars and an eventual third, in Mobley, Mitchell immediately and seamlessly established himself as the primary option. They’re 24-14, with the no. 2 net rating and the best defense in the league. Honeymoons don’t last forever, though. The Cavaliers have spacing issues and questions about their perimeter defense. Mitchell’s absurdly hot shooting isn’t sustainable either (probably).
According to Second Spectrum, Mitchell’s effective field goal percentage on stepbacks this season is 60.5, which means shots like this one are somehow totally normal:
Last season, his effective field goal percentage on stepbacks was 41.9. On pull-up 3s—which account for more than a quarter of all his attempts—Mitchell is shooting 44.7 percent this season. Translation: 26 players have taken at least 100 pull-up 3s and the only one who’s more accurate than Mitchell is Steph Curry.
But it’s also not like what he’s done is a fluke. Nobody who’s watched him play this season is stunned about the ridiculous tally. He’s drilling outside shots, yes. But he’s also never been this effective around the basket, despite operating in lineups that usually have more than one big and struggle to keep driving lanes clear.
On Monday, Mitchell didn’t sink his first field goal until there was 1:06 left in the first quarter. It was a 26-foot rainmaker that the Bulls were too slow to take away; the type of shot that’s been there for him all season.
Exactly 12 minutes later, with the Cavs down by 20, Mitchell caught a kick-out pass from Cedi Osman along the sideline. He pump-faked, took a dribble, slithered around Alex Caruso’s tight closeout, then somehow managed to Euro-step around Nikola Vucevic to scoop home an underhand floater.
The night from there was magical. It was also efficient. Mitchell finished 12-for-16 in the paint, 3-for-3 from the midrange, and 7-for-14 on non-corner 3s. Seventy-one is a lot of points. Mitchell got there missing five free throws.
His name hasn’t appeared in too many MVP conversations this season. Before Monday, he wasn’t on Basketball Reference’s Top 10 tracker for the award, either. That makes enough sense, given how loaded the field is. Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic, Doncic, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Curry, Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and maybe one other name I’m not thinking of can conceivably win.
The league has never felt this talented, and right now all that star power is competing in an environment that’s juiced up by an accelerated pace, a total embrace of the 3-point line, and parity. Every game matters. Every night is an opportunity for someone to do something we haven’t seen in a very long time, if ever.
Monday alone saw Klay Thompson drop 54 points on the Hawks, while 38-year-old LeBron James finished with 43 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists against the Hornets, and Embiid put up 42 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists in 36 minutes on the Pelicans. (There are a whopping 54 players averaging at least 20 points right now!)
With 71, Mitchell has chiseled his name into history. He may not win MVP or lead Cleveland to the Eastern Conference finals, but a singular game like that, on top of the season he’s had, is more than enough to wash away any lingering stench from last postseason. If this version of Mitchell is real, he’s the type of truly special offensive talent who should never get traded, period, and especially shouldn’t be traded before his 30th birthday. The Cavs got him at 25.