SALT LAKE CITY — The media scrum huddled around Donovan Mitchell at Zions Bank Basketball Campus on the eve of his first postseason game on April 14, 2018, was much thinner than the one he faced on Friday afternoon.
As the fifth seed during the 2019 playoffs, Mitchell and the Utah Jazz will take on Houston with Game 1 set for Sunday, but just last season, the second-year guard was enjoying Netflix and watching film in anticipation of his postseason debut.
“It changes. People change,” Mitchell described the 2018 advice he received before knocking off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opening round. “I guess they’re different. It’s playoff players and you’ve just got to be ready for that atmosphere for the physicality.”
Although much has changed since then, excitement still filled the air ahead of this year’s Houston series with the Jazz once again being the underdogs, despite closing the season on a 32-12 run.
Mitchell’s mentality is also different, with his sights on winning a title, which is a reflection of the organization.
“Just to play, I think that’s my mindset at least. I play this game to win,” said Mitchell, who broke Michael Jordan’s rookie scoring record for a guard with 55 points in his first two postseason games. “It doesn’t matter. They can say, ‘No rookie has ever gotten to the finals.' They can say, ‘No second-year player.’ But for the guy who I look to is Dwyane Wade got there in his third year so why can’t we do it?
“Why can’t we as a team get to that point? It’s funny how the media says like, ‘Wow, those are your expectations?’ It’s like ‘Nah, would you be saying the same thing if I was on Golden State? Would you say the same thing if I was on Houston?'” he continued. “Those teams have obviously been that far. We haven’t, but I think we have the mentality to get there and you don’t get to where you get as a team like this without that mindset.
“I think it helps when you have teammates that have that mindset as well. It’s not just one person. It’s not like I’m the only one that thinks about the finals, you know. Rudy (Gobert) comes in with that mindset, Joe (Ingles) comes in with that mindset, so for us, that’s why you play. You play to win a ring.”
The Jazz franchise has never won a title but did make back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998 during the Karl Malone and John Stockton era before losing twice to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. In fact, Malone and Stockton still share the NBA record for most seasons in the playoffs with 19 each.
The 2006-07 Jazz team did advance to the Western Conference Finals in 2007 before falling to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, but no Jazz team has gone that far since then. Along the way, Utah knocked off Houston as the No. 4 seed during the first round of that seven-game series.
Despite 28 all-time playoff appearances, the Jazz organization has never hoisted a championship banner, though.
Utah upset the Thunder, 4-2, in last year’s opening round before losing a five-game series to the Rockets in the second round. After finishing the regular season 50-32 in 2018-19, the Jazz worked their way back to this point against Houston through a suspenseful process that went down to the final day of the regular season to determine the opening round matchups.
Utah could’ve possibly faced Portland in the opening round but a wild night of action around the NBA completely shook things up. The Jazz needed either the Minnesota Timberwolves to beat the Denver Nuggets or the Sacramento Kings to beat the Portland Trail Blazers to draw the Trail Blazers in the first round instead of the Houston Rockets, but neither of those happened, which set up the Jazz-Rockets series.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert learned about the final seeding following Wednesday’s road finale against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We kind of expected it,” Gobert explained his reaction to drawing Houston. “It’s almost like the basketball Gods wanted us to play Houston and it’s like no matter what you do, you’ve got one chance out of a million and it happened, so we all were like, ‘OK.’
“Portland’s a very good team, Houston’s a very good team but it’s about us and no matter who we play, we know that we’re going to be ready.”
Houston presents numerous challenges to the Jazz, which were on display during last year’s series, but James Harden is once again playing at an MVP level. Harden is the first player to average 36.1 points and 7.5 assists per game in NBA history. His 36.1 points per game mark were also the eighth-highest scoring average in league history.
Defending Harden has certainly been a nightmare for teams all around the league, but Utah’s approach is much like Mitchell’s.
The Jazz and Rockets spilt the season series 2-2 with all four games coming ahead of the All-Star break so the teams look much different through health, different player acquisitions and other factors. However, the Jazz aren’t just happy to be in the playoffs this time around but are playing for June.
So, even with the odds stacked against them, it’s still that simple.
“It’s less about a different mentality as it is about a stronger mentality,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.3 comments on this story
NBA Western Conference Quarterfinals
No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
- Game 1: Sunday, 7:30 p.m. at Houston, ATTSN/TNT
- Game 2: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at Houston, ATTSN/TNT
- Game 3: Saturday, April 20, 8:30 p.m. at Salt Lake City, ATTSN/ESPN
- Game 4: Monday, April 22, 8:30 p.m. at Salt Lake City, ATTSN/TNT
- Game 5: Wednesday, April 24, TBD, at Houston, TBD, if necessary
- Game 6: Friday, April 26, TBD at Salt Lake City, TBD, if necessary
- Game 7: Sunday, April 28, TBD at Houston, TBD, if necessary