SALT LAKE CITY — Nothing epitomizes Donovan Mitchell’s second professional season more than the end of Saturday’s 107-106 loss to Oklahoma City, and nothing better illustrates the difference between his seasons.
The ball went out when it needed to go in, and in when it needed to go out.
While it’s probable the Jazz are a better team than their 16-18 record shows — given half their road schedule is already finished – it’s disconcerting for them to know their star player still isn’t in sync. He wasn’t perfect last year. It’s just that this season everyone knows it.
What also was clear Saturday was that the Jazz need him to be his best self if they plan to beat Oklahoma City in the playoffs again next spring.
Mitchell turned in a respectable 20-point night against the Thunder. But he was an underwhelming 7-of-17 from the field and 2-8 from 3-point range. As the seconds melted away, so did the Jazz. It would be hasty to say Mitchell isn’t a special player. He is, however, finding how rapidly opponents adjust. In the world’s best basketball league, if you aren’t getting better, you’re falling behind.
The ending was a microcosm of the season for Mitchell. He made a layup with 47 seconds left to pull the Jazz within two, then stole a Dennis Schroder pass. Schroder stole it back.
By then, there were 29 seconds remaining.
OKC’s Russell Westbrook finished off an awful 3-for-17 shooting night by missing with 11 seconds to go, and the Jazz had one last chance. Mitchell rebounded and, after a timeout, went for a soaring dunk. Westbrook knocked him into the stanchion.
It was the perfect setup for overtime.
Mitchell went to the free throw line, but the first shot was off. On the second attempt, he tried to miss, hoping the ball could be tipped in with 1.5 seconds remaining. Instead, the high-arcing shot fell through the net.
“Just missed a free throw,” he said after the game. “No way around it. That can’t happen.”
It’s been that kind of year, for Mitchell and the Jazz. They fly to Mexico for a game against Orlando and get beat, then go to Houston and lose a close one. Soon to follow were significant wins over Golden State and Portland.
Mitchell has been the story all year. Last season, he was a surprise. This year, he’s an enigma.
When the Jazz and Thunder met two weeks ago, Paul George scored 17 third-quarter points in the Oklahoma City victory. This time, he was untouchable, making 15 of 25 shots and scoring 43 points. He was worth every George Washington the Thunder are paying him — and every Benjamin Franklin and Woodrow Wilson, too.
Wednesday’s win over Golden State was big for Utah, not just because it was against the defending champs. It was also the fact Mitchell was awful from the field (5-of-26), yet the bench awoke, combining for 39 points. But lurking beneath was the fact he hasn’t been as good as he was last year. He shot 1-for-10 against Portland on Friday.
His effective field goal percentage is three points behind last season’s. Player efficiency, win shares, standard field goal percentage and net rating are all down.
He’s been following the stock market into December.
In the three weeks before Saturday, he had made just 63 of 178 shots (.353). Mitchell hasn’t made half his shots in a game since Dec. 4.
Don’t expect Quin Snyder to intervene.
“If he doesn’t shoot, that’s Donovan being selfish,” Snyder said a few days ago.
Can the Jazz win without Mitchell playing well? Not in the long run. This year, they’re 1-3 in games he didn’t play. They need him to play as he did in Game 6 of last year’s playoffs against Oklahoma City.2 comments on this story
But don’t bring up the one-man-team argument with Thunder coach Billy Donovan.
“Yeah, I think it speaks to their team,” Donovan said. “They’re not a team one guy has to play well all the time order for them to win. So I think it speaks to how well-rounded their team is and the different players that they have on any given night that can get hot and step up and provide scoring.”
Depth is a great thing to have, but every team needs its stars, too.
If the Jazz expect to beat the Thunder in April, they’ll need Mitchell at his best.