The Utah Jazz dropped Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Sunday, falling 116-108 to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a game dominated by superstar performances from OKC’s two top guns. Paul George seemed to have put his “mechanical” issues well behind him, sliding into “Playoff P” mode and scorching the nets to the tune of 36 points on 8-for-11 shooting from 3-point range. Russell Westbrook added 29 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated; OKC led by 18 with just over three minutes left before a late Jazz flurry, firmly holding serve at home to take control of the best-of-seven set.
The silver lining for the Jazz and their fans: rising star and leading scorer Donovan Mitchell looked awfully comfortable in his postseason debut. Utah’s Rookie of the Year candidate scored a team-high 27 points on 11-for-22 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in 35 minutes of floor time, during which the ramped-up intensity of the playoffs didn’t seem to bother him at all.
What did bother him, though, was an injury he appeared to sustain in the first half after Thunder guard Corey Brewer stepped on his foot while defending him off the ball, and that he later said he aggravated when he “kind of stubbed [his] toe” on the foot of Alex Abrines during this third-quarter layup:
Per @andyblarsen, Donovan Mitchell told reporters today that he suffered his left foot contusion when he "kind of stubbed [his] toe on [Alex] Abrines" on this third-quarter layup: pic.twitter.com/3iUFMhaUwo
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 16, 2018
Later, after some hobbling along the sideline, Mitchell would head back to the visiting locker room for X-rays. They came back clean, but Utah’s training staff still wanted to be cautious with the prized prospect … which didn’t sit too well with Mitchell:
Donovan Mitchell wasn't going to let a foot injury keep him on the bench in his playoff debut. pic.twitter.com/NdaCNWjNAS
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) April 16, 2018
Mitchell checked back into the game, playing 4 1/2 minutes in the fourth quarter as the Thunder salted away the win. After the game, he insisted he was fine, saying that he thought he had “just stubbed my toe” and that it was “nothing major,” despite the fact that the trainers elected to take him out of the game.
“I was just limping, so the trainers saw me limping and they thought I needed to come out,” he told reporters after the game. “But I was just being a baby, so I’m good.”
An MRI to follow up the X-rays helped everyone breathe a little easier on Sunday night …
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell underwent an MRI on his left foot and the results came back negative, league sources tell ESPN. He will play in Game 2 on Wednesday.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) April 16, 2018
… but the Jazz still erred on the side of caution with their official injury designation for Mitchell on Tuesday:
Donovan Mitchell’s MRI revealed a left foot contusion. His status for Wednesday’s game will be determined tomorrow.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) April 16, 2018
Despite the team pumping the brakes on declaring Mitchell a go for Wednesday’s Game 2, the man himself and his teammates seemed fairly confident he’ll be ready:
Donovan Mitchell, when asked if he's concerned he'll be limited in any way for game 2: "No."
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 16, 2018
Royce O'Neale: "He (Donovan Mitchell) is going to be good come Wednesday."
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 16, 2018
And yet, despite Mitchell going through portions of Tuesday’s practice and Wednesday’s non-contact morning shootaround, the Jazz still aren’t ready to say that their leading scorer is good to go for the game that’s hours away from tipping off:
Donovan Mitchell is officially questionable for tonight’s game.
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) April 18, 2018
On one hand, Mitchell said that while his status is “pretty much a game-time decision right now,” he felt like things are looking “pretty good” for him getting back on the court. On the other, he didn’t sound completely confident in his wounded wheel.
Mitchell added that he’s never tried to play with the kind of pain he has in his foot right now. I think there’s a number of ways you could read into that.
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) April 18, 2018
“I’m real determined on playing but if my body can’t, I’m not going to push it now and then not be available the rest of the series,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s a matter of being smart with it as well as understanding that I do want to play so it’s tough for me because I want to play through anything, but I’ve got to be smart with it as well.”
Discretion should absolutely be the better part of valor when you’re talking about the health of a 21-year-old whom the Jazz plan to build around for many years to come. That said — at the risk of putting too fine a point on it — having a limited version of Mitchell, let alone being without him entirely, may well be fatal to Utah’s hopes of scoring enough to beat Oklahoma City.
Mitchell has been the offensive engine of Utah’s surge from a 19-28 record to the West’s No. 5 seed, becoming the first rookie since Carmelo Anthony in 2003-2004 to lead a playoff team in scoring. Less than a year after coming off the board with the No. 13 pick in the 2017 draft, thanks in part to months of on-court work and film sessions under the watchful eye of Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant, he has developed into a legitimate No. 1 NBA option, the kind of creative force Utah desperately needed to fill the void left by Gordon Hayward and George Hill departing in free agency.
From the start of December through the end of the regular season, the Jazz scored 107.6 points per 100 possessions with Mitchell on the court and 104.6 points-per-100 when he sat. His presence, activity, shot-making and attacking helped span the gap between Utah’s offense scoring like the Clippers’, Pelicans’ and Thunder’s top-10 offenses, and like the Nets’ and Lakers’ bottom-10 attacks.
The difference has been just as stark on the defensive end, where the Jazz have allowed 100.4 points-per-100 with Mitchell — a 6-foot-3 grinder with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, quick feet and the athleticism to smother opposing scorers — over the past five months, compared to 104.3 points-per-100 without him, equivalent to the difference between roughly the league’s 10th-best unit and No. 1 with a bullet. Among Jazz rotation players since the start of December, only likely Defensive Player of the Year and franchise centerpiece Rudy Gobert has posted better on/off splits than the rookie.
If Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan continues to deploy George — who, for what it’s worth, has been dealing with a hip bruise, but who’s not listed on the injury report and is expected to play on Wednesday — as the primary defender on Utah playmaker Joe Ingles, and if the strategy continues to short-circuit the Jazz’s motion offense, Mitchell’s ability to puncture the defense, get to the rim and create shots for himself and others will become even more important for a Jazz team that can struggle to score at times.
If he can’t go at all, then head coach Quin Snyder will have to look elsewhere for that sort of attacking spark, because a replay of the Game 1 approach that saw point guard Ricky Rubio take a team-high 18 shots just won’t cut it. It’s a look the Jazz ran with much more at the beginning of the year than the end of it — only 60 Rubio-no Mitchell minutes since the All-Star break, according to lineup data at NBAwowy.com — and you can understand why. According to lineup data at NBAwowy.com, in nearly 700 minutes with Rubio on the floor but Mitchell off it, Utah has scored at a bottom-10 rate of 104.2 points-per-100 while conceding 108.2-per-100, a negative net rating that calls to mind the performance of the Nets and Knicks. Not exactly who you’re looking to emulate this time of year.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that, tasked with taking on a greater creative role in Mitchell’s stead, X-factor Dante Exum or shooting guard Alec Burks, both of whom scored 10 points in the opener, could help make up the difference. But neither right now brings the total high-usage, big-minutes, two-way package that Mitchell offers when he’s on the court. If he’s not able to go, or if he’s limited at all, Utah’s odds of stealing a game in Oklahoma to even up the series and wrest away home-court advantage decrease significantly … and their chances of extending their playoff stay beyond the postseason’s first two weeks drop, too.
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