Whether I’m starting or not, I just try to be a spark. Whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, be that guy that brings a lot of energy. —Jazz guard Royce O'Neale
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz’s Cinderella run could be coming to an end soon, but the postseason ride has certainly been beneficial toward the development of rookies Donovan Mitchell and Royce O’Neale.
Utah may be trailing 3-1 entering Game 5 in Houston Tuesday, but the playoff experience for O’Neale and Mitchell could be an integral piece in the future for the franchise’s rising stars.
After Sunday’s Game 4 loss, Mitchell became the fourth rookie since 1964 to have five or more 25-point playoff games, according to Basketball Reference.
O’Neale also entered the starting lineup for injured floor general Ricky Rubio during the Western Conference Semifinals series versus the Rockets and became the fourth Jazzman to snag at least four steals in a playoff debut. He also led the team in scoring during Game 3 with 17 points.
“Whether I’m starting or not, I just try to be a spark,” O’Neale said. “Whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, be that guy that brings a lot of energy.”
In Rubio’s second-round absence, Mitchell has struggled at times to pick his spots of being aggressive while making plays for his teammates. He blamed himself for the Game 3 loss as he shot 4 for 16 with 10 points, three assists and three turnovers but bounced back in Game 4 with 25 points, nine rebounds and four steals.
“Just trying to find a way to bounce back and I think I did a better job of that,” Mitchell said. “There were a lot of plays I turned the ball over or shouldn’t have taken certain shots but I’m definitely getting better.”
Snyder admired the way the team competed in Game 4, especially after cutting a 19-point second half deficit to five in the fourth.
“What Donovan is trying to do right now, he’s a rookie that’s led us in scoring and has been our primary option the entire year and now he’s being asked to play point guard against the best team in the league,” Snyder said. “After last game, Donovan had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“He felt like he let the team down, he didn’t play well but this is part of his growth as a player and it’s happening in the playoffs,” he added. “I could not be more satisfied with the way he responded from his game the other night and it didn’t come easy.”
Both O’Neale and Mitchell are learning that they won’t be able to dominate offensively every night, but they are finding other ways to make their presence felt on the court. That’s happening through steals, defensive rebounding — and occasional highlight jams like the one O’Neale finished over Rockets big man Clint Capela in the second quarter.
“Houston’s that good,” Snyder said. “Give them credit, they know how to control a game.”
But Mitchell and O’Neale are also taking notes as they face one of the league’s top teams on this level. Responding to adversity could be the mark of the Jazz’s future stars. Experience is sometimes the best teacher.
“I was just out of character last game,” Mitchell said of bouncing back from Game 3. “The biggest thing is when you’re not able to be there for your teammates, like I was there, but not really doing much. They trust me. I think the biggest thing is just not really exploit the trust.”