First half, I was kind of hesitant and kind of nervous to be honest with you, and he came up to me after one of the timeouts, before the half ended, and said, ‘We’re going to win this game and you’re going to go off. —Donovan Mitchell on Quin Snyder's pep talk
SALT LAKE CITY — With a heap of reporters circling Rudy Gobert at the practice facility early Friday, Donovan Mitchell tried to lighten the mood and distract the big man during his shootaround interview with a funny karate stance.
The Utah Jazz center noticed the rookie out of the corner of his eye, but did his best to ignore the jokester.
There was no time for fun, especially on game day.
“He’s trying to distract me, but I’m focused,” Gobert said, smirking.
By the time the ball was tipped off at 8:30 p.m. in Vivint Arena, the level of focus rubbed off on Mitchell as he finished with 38 points, four rebounds and two assists to send the Oklahoma City Thunder packing, 96-91, after Game 6.
Mitchell’s 22 third-quarter points were the most in franchise history for the playoffs.
He came out of halftime in attack mode with 10 consecutive points, in a head-to-head battle against reigning MVP Russell Westbrook — who also posted 20 of his 46 points in the third.
“To be honest with you, Coach Quin (Snyder) called that, the whole thing,” Mitchell said. “First half, I was kind of hesitant and kind of nervous to be honest with you, and he came up to me after one of the timeouts, before the half ended, and said, ‘We’re going to win this game and you’re going to go off,’ and when you have a coach telling you that, your mindset is like ‘you know what? There’s no need to be nervous,’ and from that point on I just kept knocking down shots.”
Westbrook relished the challenge of battling against the first-year guard. Utah went up by as many as 13 in the fourth, but Westbrook brought OKC within a point after his 3-pointer with 1:28 in regulation before Utah closed the game with an 18-foot jumper from Derrick Favors and a pair of free throws by Mitchell.
“(Donovan Mitchell) hit some tough shots, but we stuck together for four quarters in my opinion,” Westbrook said after the loss.
But now the Jazz move on to Houston after winning the Thunder series, 4-2.
Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals series is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Toyota Center.
The Rockets are the top-ranked Western Conference team, coming off a 4-1 series win against the Minnesota Timberwolves with MVP front-runner James Harden.
During the regular season, Utah went 0-4 versus Houston with Mitchell averaging just 16.3 points on 44.4 percent shooting and 3.8 turnovers. Both Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker were Houston’s primary defenders on Mitchell, making life tough for the first-year guard.
Even after becoming the second rookie in the past 50 years of NBA history, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to score at least 20 points in each of their first six career playoff games, Snyder isn’t letting one individual overshadow the team game.
Not even a rookie as talented as Mitchell following his record-breaking night.
“I think the biggest thing you could say about Donovan is to talk about our team,” Snyder said. “I think our guys, they’ve said it, ‘The strength of the team is the team.’
“The things that Donovan did tonight, the team needed and that’s who he’s been,” he continued. “He’s been a team-first guy, and sometimes the team needs a guy to take things on his shoulders. In that third quarter, obviously he was dynamic.”