He’s a passionate player. To the extent that he can care that, whether it be on the bench or the locker room, that adds something. —Jazz coach Quin Snyder, on Ricky Rubio
SALT LAKE CITY — A look of frustration was displayed across the face of Donovan Mitchell during the postgame press conference in Vivint Arena on Friday night.
The Utah Jazz star rookie struggled mightily in a 113-92 Game 3 loss to Houston Rockets, ending with 10 points, three assists and three turnovers on 4-for-16 shooting as a minus-31.
“I’ve got to pass the ball for starters,” Mitchell said. “I’m taking terrible shots. I made a few better passes in the second half, in the third quarter, but I can’t shoot terrible shots. That’s what leads to their transition.”
During the first three games of Utah’s Western Conference semifinals series, Mitchell has been asked to play point guard on a full-time basis as Ricky Rubio nurses a left hamstring strain. There is still no timetable for Rubio’s return — he is listed as questionable for Sunday's Game 4 — but the team is certainly missing his presence and playmaking ability during this pivotal stretch. His absence is putting a lot of pressure on Mitchell’s shoulder to score and facilitate while being the focal point of Houston’s defense.
Houston led by as many as 38 and cruised to a 2-1 series lead, entering Sunday’s Game 4.
Although Mitchell was quick to take full responsibility for his rough game, his teammates and head coach Quin Snyder are keeping things in perspective.
While he’s been spectacular at times, Mitchell is still a first-year guard in uncharted territory.
“We definitely miss Ricky,” said Jazz center Rudy Gobert. “He’s the point guard, the floor general, he communicates with everyone, he kind of keeps us together offensively and defensively but it’s also a good experience for us. We’re just learning and we can only get better from this.’
After his record-setting first round performance to send the Oklahoma City Thunder packing, Mitchell has still made highlight plays but has fizzled down in the second round in terms of efficiency. Against Houston, he’s shooting 32.2 percent from the field to average 16 points, 6.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 3.3 turnovers.
In the first round against OKC, he put up 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 46.2 percent shooting while playing alongside Rubio as the off guard. Rubio suffered the injury in the Game 6 closeout win against OKC and is making progress, according to Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
The Jazz are plus-5.2 with Rubio on court and minus-3.6 with him off court. Utah is also averaging 11.6 assists without him suiting up as opposed to the 13.2 with him in the lineup.
“He’s a passionate player,” Snyder said of Rubio. “To the extent that he can care that, whether it be on the bench or the locker room, that adds something.”
Without Rubio, the Rockets are throwing Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and James Harden at Mitchell on defense. The Rockets are using switches, overplaying and physical force to keep the ball out of his hands and then force him to use his off-hand once he catches. The absence of Rubio makes their job much easier as the Jazz have to figure out a way to adjust.
“I think it makes Donovan handle the ball more than they would like,” Ariza said. “He’s their dominant scorer at this point so when he has to handle the ball and get everybody involved in the game, it kind of takes away from him scoring the ball all the time or being aggressive all the time.”
THE DREAM: Ahead of the Houston Rockets’ Saturday practice, a Hall of Famer participated in friendly one-on-one games and got up shots before the team hit the court. Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon was spotted at Vivint Arena putting up jumpers. Even at 55 years old, Olajuwon was still moving fluidly.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni interrupted P.J. Tucker’s interview on Saturday afternoon to ask, “Is it your birthday today?” Surrounded by a group reporters, Tucker responded jokingly with, “Yeah, man, I’m 21.” Tucker actually turned 33 years old on Saturday and said he wants to win 10 more games in the postseason with a NBA championship being his gift.