They’re going to play me differently. They’re going to guard me differently and make the certain reads.” —Donovan Mitchell
SALT LAKE CITY — A star was born on Dec. 1, 2017.
There’s no denying that.
The Utah Jazz’s 114-108 victory against the New Orleans Pelicans turned out to be a coming out party for rookie Donovan Mitchell as erupted for a career-best 41 points.
It’s not what he did, but how he did it, that made it so spectacular.
Mitchell posted 29 points in the second half, broke Darrell Griffith’s longstanding franchise rookie scoring record, rallied the team back from a 16-point hole and helped the Jazz win their fifth in a row.
He also became the first NBA rookie to post 40 or more since Blake Griffin in 2011 and the first Jazzman since Al Jefferson in 2013.
As great as that performance was, and boy was it good, it seems like a century ago with the brutal December stretch that Utah endured after that victory.
As the Jazz prepare to host the Pelicans again Wednesday at 7 p.m., the league’s top-scoring rookie says that game is in his rearview mirror.
Mitchell’s not even thinking about it.
“Not particularly. If anything, they’re going to be more locked in on me and try to play me differently,” Mitchell said after Tuesday’s practice. “I just try to treat every game like it’s the same. Same energy, same focus and just come out to do anything I can do to win.”
Utah closed the year out with a spirited 104-101 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers Saturday at Vivint Arena on LeBron James’ 33rd birthday. The Jazz went 5-10 with the league’s toughest December schedule against 11 legitimate playoff contenders while battling numerous injuries, most notably Rudy Gobert (left knee), but Jazz coach Quin Snyder said the team has responded well to adversity.
“I think this team has a resilience,” Snyder said. “You don’t always see it, because circumstances don’t always dictate that you would see it.”
While the team struggled, at times, Mitchell flourished with seven games of 25 or more points in that stretch. He averaged 23.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals in December, but has accepted assistant coach Mike Wells’ challenge to become a better rebounder.
“It’s been fun. I’m not going to lie and say it hasn’t been fun,” Mitchell said of December. “It’s been incredible, but it’s so much that I’m doing now that come February that won’t be there. So, I ‘ve just got to be able to continue to improve and make adjustments because they’re going to play me differently. They’re going to guard me differently and make the certain reads.”
For Utah, it’s not just all Mitchell, though. Guys like Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Joe Johnson are also finding a rhythm.
In the Cleveland victory, Sefolosha played solid defense on James while posting 10 points with 12 boards and three steals. Rubio narrowly missed a triple-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and Johnson logged 17 solid minutes with eight points and three rebounds off the bench.
New Orleans (18-18) enters the game on a two-game losing streak, but currently holds the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings. Sure, Mitchell’s 41-point game was magical, but he can’t be New Orleans’ sole focus if they plan to beat the Jazz.
Utah is a much better team at home (13-6) than on the road (3-15). That certainly won't change in 2018.
“Right now, if you look at even just the analytics, our defense is significantly better at home than on the road and I think that says a lot about our crowd,” Snyder said. “The energy that our crowd gives us at home, our guys respond and we’ve got to be able to generate that obviously without the crowd but there’s no question that we’ve got the best fans in the NBA.”