SALT LAKE CITY — It seemed unlikely Donovan Mitchell could make himself even more popular, but he managed to last Wednesday. That hasn’t always happened with Jazz stars.
In 2010, the team was one win away from the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, with a game remaining. But Carlos Boozer didn’t answer the call. Team officials said it was a “strained oblique muscle.”
The Jazz lost to Phoenix, falling to the fifth seed. Had they finished third, they could have avoided playing the eventual champion Lakers until the conference finals. Instead, they lost to the Lakers in the second round.
Boozer fielded criticism for his absence, mainly because he was always hurt. He missed 28 percent of his games in Utah. It’s just that he never seemed terribly upset about missing games. There was always an air of vague indifference.
Injuries are apple and orange comparisons. A strained oblique isn’t the same as Mitchell stubbing his toe. Try telling that to hardcore fans and cold-hearted skeptics. All they know is Mitchell answered the bell earlier this week. There’s no ambivalence with him. He had a big fourth quarter Wednesday as the Jazz won Game 2 of the playoffs.
Youth and energy are one factor, but not the only one. Willingness is another.
Which naturally is why he’s a smash hit with Jazz fans.
“No, it didn’t really hurt too much throughout the game, but there was just a point where I stopped being aggressive,” he self-deprecatingly noted after Wednesday’s win.
On the likability scale, Mitchell is up there with Mr. Rogers and Bill Murray. More important, he offered his best shot on a tender foot. Maybe after he’s been in the league eight years, as was Boozer in 2010, Mitchell will be more cautious. The Jazz were a No. 5 playoff seed, same as this year, but the optimism wasn’t nearly as high. The Jazz were a good team in the Boozer-Williams era, sometimes very good. Three years earlier they had made the conference finals.
Boozer and Williams were All-Stars — something Rudy Gobert and Mitchell haven’t yet achieved. Still, the former Jazz stars weren’t terribly connected to the fans.
This year’s team has fan appeal beyond anything Williams and Boozer ever generated. That happens when players want to be someplace and it shows.
Though Williams played through injuries, he had the personality of a guard dog — someone else’s. Boozer was less grumpy, but distant.
There’s always a chance Mitchell and Gobert will leave Utah when their market value is highest. But they don’t seem anxious to be gone. For now they own the state. Nobody questioned Gobert’s desire when he sat out 26 games this year. That’s because each time he’s been out, it was obvious he wanted to be with the team. He watched all the games in street clothes, sitting with his teammates.
Boozer certainly missed a lot of games: 31 in 2004-05; 49 in 2005-06; 45 in 2008-09; and 24 in 2010-11. Among his injuries were numerous hamstring problems, which are always tricky. But he didn’t shoo away the trainers so he could play, the way Mitchell did last Sunday. Mitchell quickly downplayed the seriousness of his foot injury, walking around the locker room barefoot. He said on the morning of Game 2 he was “determined on playing” but “it’s a matter of being smart.”
It’s also a matter of perception when it comes to fan engagement.
Boozer: not tough.
Mitchell: Make my day.
Wednesday Mitchell became the first rookie guard to score a combined 55 points in his first two playoff games. That’s where his popularity has topped the charts. He’s likable in part because he’s relatively accessible to his fan base. Boozer didn’t show up unannounced at shopping malls to sign autographs. And he didn’t post snapshots of himself overlooking the Salt Lake Valley with the phrase “God is good” superimposed.
Mitchell wants to play — on the court, in the city and in the moment.
That’s all Utahns ever ask of their stars.