If this is how Donovan Mitchell plays when he’s limited by a left foot contusion, then Quin Snyder should really think about taking a hammer to his star rookie’s pinky toe before every game from here on out. Y’know, just for good luck.
An hour before tipoff of Wednesday’s Game 2, Mitchell was officially questionable to suit up for the Utah Jazz, his status for the evening still publicly uncertain. Two hours after tipoff, he was very publicly dominating the Oklahoma City Thunder, slinking around defenders and slicing his way to the rim with the confidence and decisiveness of a guy with a hell of a lot more than two playoff games under his belt.
Mitchell scored 13 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, leading the Jazz back from a 10-point deficit and all the way to a 102-95 win that evened Utah’s best-of-seven first-round series with the Thunder at one game apiece. With the victory, the Jazz snatched home-court advantage away from fourth-seeded Oklahoma City before the scene shifts to Salt Lake City for Game 3 on Saturday; if they can protect home court, Snyder’s club can have the chance to finish the Thunder off in a return trip to OKC next week.
Mitchell struggled somewhat offensively in the first half, missing six of his first 10 shots and seeming to lack the level of burst off the bounce that has helped make the 21-year-old Louisville product one of the top scorers and playmakers in the 2017 rookie class. Even so, though, the Jazz entered intermission with a seven-point lead, thanks largely to a marked improvement in shot-making effectiveness from Mitchell’s backcourt partner Ricky Rubio, a bulldozing half around the basket by power forward Derrick Favors, and stout defensive work that held OKC to just 39 percent shooting through two quarters.
The tide turned midway through the third, as the Thunder finally clicked into gear on both ends, forcing turnovers that kickstarted their fast-break game and created open shots that their stars started drilling:
The Thunder ripped off a 19-0 run in just over five minutes of game time, turning a nine-point deficit into a 77-67 lead with a minute remaining in the third. The Jazz looked shell-shocked by Oklahoma City starting to get consistent shot-making from Game 1 hero Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, who combined for 15 of the Thunder’s 19 points in the stretch. Moreover, Mitchell continued to seem limited, missing a pair of shots right at the rim and a runner in the lane as OKC built up steam.
And then, just as soon as we all started voicing our concerns over the degree to which Donovan looked diminished, he found himself, and he found another gear:
Donovan Mitchell ends the 3rd quarter with a throwdown
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 19, 2018
Two quicksilver drives to the bucket in the final 24 seconds of the quarter Mitchell got the Jazz back within five heading into the fourth, and proved he could beat Thunder defenders to the rim. His rhythm located, he continued attacking off the bounce, getting himself to the foul line twice in the first two minutes of the quarter; suddenly, the Jazz weren’t the ones who looked rattled.
Then again, maybe “rattled” isn’t the right word for how the OKC defense looked in the midst of Mitchell’s fourth-quarter flamethrowing. In light of his work on a couple of later possessions, perhaps “shaken” is a more appropriate word:
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 19, 2018
While Mitchell was getting to the basket and the line seemingly at will, the Thunder’s stars just couldn’t get a blessed thing to drop through the net. Westbrook, George and Anthony combined to go 0-for-14 from the field in the fourth quarter, as OKC’s offense cratered at the worst possible moment:
Trailing by four with a minute still left in regulation, the Thunder had opportunities to seize control of the game late. But Anthony missed a pair of 3-pointers and, after Jazz star Rudy Gobert (13 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, three blocks, two steals) hit a pair of freebies to push the lead to six, George missed two more jumpers to officially end the Thunder threat.
Carmelo Anthony: "I don't know. I think we missed. I think we all missed. I don't really have the answer to what happened or the excuse of why we didn't make shots. We just didn't make shots in that fourth quarter."
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 19, 2018
After that great fourth-quarter close, the Jazz will now send the series to Utah deadlocked, thanks to the formula they’ve ridden all year: great defense and an awful lot of No. 45 wreaking havoc on his way to the tin.
“[The left foot] didn’t really hurt too much throughout the game,” Mitchell said during his post-game press conference. “But there was just a point where I stopped being aggressive, and the big thing with Rudy, he let me know that I went 0-for-7 from 3, I’m letting guys off the hook. I’ve got to keep applying pressuring, getting to the rim.”
Mitchell did just that, finishing with 28 points on 10-for-25 shooting to go with six rebounds, two assists and a steal in 43 minutes of work. That production comes on the heels of his 27-point, 10-rebound postseason debut, and those two strong starts put him in some awfully impressive historical company:
Donovan Mitchell becomes the 2nd rookie in NBA history to score 27+ points in his first 2 playoff games. The other: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
— Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) April 19, 2018
Donovan Mitchell has scored a total of 55 points in his first two playoff games, which is the most by a guard in NBA history.
The previous record holder is someone you may have heard of pic.twitter.com/Q9wfJhVpCo
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 19, 2018
But Mitchell’s fourth-quarter performance doesn’t matter if his veteran teammates don’t knock the Thunder on their heels early, and come through with their own timely plays late. After going 5-for-18 from the floor in Game 1, Rubio got back to running the show first and finding his own shot off of that, and everything clicked into place in a 22-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound masterpiece capped by a pair of big fourth-quarter 3s that kept the Thunder at bay:
Favors — who joined Gordon Hayward as one of the first pieces of Utah’s early-decade rebuild when the Jazz plucked him from the New Jersey Nets in return for then-star Deron Williams, and who can sometimes get lost in the hype surrounding Mitchell and Gobert — notched a decisive victory in his bellwether power forward matchup against Anthony (17 points on 6-for-18 shooting, nine rebounds) and provided dynamite minutes at center in Gobert’s stead by dominating the front of the rim:
Favors pulled down 16 rebounds (including eight on the offensive glass) to go with a career-playoff-high 20 points, three assists and a steal. He extended possessions after Utah misses and kept OKC from getting second bites at the apple, and he finished everything he could get his hands on around the rim in an impressive display of power that — for the time being, at least — shifted the balance of power in a series in which Utah will now have three chances at home to get the three wins they need to advance to Round 2.
If they get better performances from George (18 points on 21 shots, 10 rebounds), Westbrook (19 points on 19 shots, 13 assists, nine rebounds, four steals), Anthony and center Steven Adams, who fouled out with 2:48 to go, the Thunder are absolutely capable of shifting the balance back come Saturday. To do it, though, they’re going to have to find a way to slow down Mitchell … and, judging by Wednesday night, it’s going to take a lot more than a bruised pinky toe.
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