The Utah Jazz finished atop the Western Conference for the first time since the 1997-98 season. They are among the favorites to win the title but dropped their first game to the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies. The Jazz need Donovan Mitchell if they hope to make their first NBA Finals in over twenty years.
All-Star Season Cut Short
There’s no denying that Donovan Mitchell had a stellar year. The fourth-year guard averaged a career-high in points (26.4), assists (5.2), and rebounds (4.4). He shot 43.8% from the field and 38.6% from the three-point arc, and made more field goals (9.0) and three-pointers (3.4) per contest. Unsurprisingly, Mitchell earned an All-Star nod in March, his second in a row. At the time, the Jazz appeared to be cruising to the playoffs.
However, everything changed when Mitchell suffered an ankle sprain against the Indiana Pacers on April 16. So far, Mitchell has yet to return to the court, and the Jazz suddenly look vulnerable.
The “Best” In The West
The Jazz secured a league-best 52-20 record through hard-nosed defense and sharpshooting offense. They were the only team with an offensive rating (3) and defensive rating (4) in the top four of the league. The team’s success boils down to two key metrics: rebounding and three-point shooting.
No team snagged more rebounds per game (48.3) than the Jazz during the regular season. That effort was spearheaded by Rudy Gobert, who grabbed a whopping 13.5 rebounds per game. They are an elite rebounding team, and their ability to clean the glass translated into more second-chance opportunities.
In addition, no other team came close to the Jazz in terms of three-pointers made (1205) or attempted (3246). They converted an impressive 38.9% of their three-point shots, a mark that was fourth-best in the league.
This combination of rebounding and shooting makes the Jazz a difficult opponent to deal with. However, since Mitchell went down, a number of worrying signs have started to appear. Unless he returns near All-Star form, the Jazz may be in serious trouble.
Late in close games, coach Quin Snyder looks to Mitchell to make things happen. Mitchell is able to attack the paint and draw the double-team, and without him, there aren’t as many open shooters available. Teams play tighter, tougher defense in the playoffs, and shots that might have been open looks in the regular season suddenly become contested. The Jazz live and die by the three-point shot, as evidenced by this one crazy stat: while the Jazz finished first in the number of three-pointers made and attempted, they ranked dead last in two-point field goals (30) and attempts (30). If their shots aren’t falling, the Jazz become vulnerable, and without Mitchell, the Jazz aren’t going to scare anyone in the playoffs.
Mitchell Is The X-Factor
Outside of Mitchell, there are no borderline superstars on the Jazz. Nevertheless, the Jazz are one of the most well-rounded teams in the league. Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic bring shooting and improve spacing. Rudy Gobert grabs boards and guards the paint. Mike Conley helps facilitate the offense and can create his own shot. All this is true, but it’s also true that none of them are the team’s X-factor. Jordan Clarkson, the new NBA Sixth Man of the Year, is well-rounded and provides a scoring punch off the bench, but even he is not the X-Factor. Mitchell is the linchpin to the Jazz’s success. Therefore, as he goes, the Jazz go as well.
The Jazz rely on Mitchell’s ability to attack the basket to collapse the defense and create open shots. Without Mitchell, the Jazz’s offense grinds to a slow crawl. Even with Mitchell, the Jazz only averaged 98.5 possessions per 48 minutes. That pace wasn’t enough to place in even the top half of the league. Additionally, they placed in the bottom third in assists per game (23). Most of their points in the half-court are scored in the pick-and-roll or off the dribble. This reliance on isolation plays works with Mitchell on the court. It has yet to prove to be a winning strategy without him.
Mitchell Is Ready To Play
After the Game 1 loss to the Grizzlies, Mitchell sent out a heartfelt message on his Twitter apologizing for his absence.
In a post-game press conference, Mitchell made it clear that he was ready to get back on the court. “For me, for my team, I was definitely frustrated and upset that I wasn’t able to play. I felt I was ready to go. I felt ready to go, and unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”
Michell is scheduled to play in Game 2. His return is crucial if the Jazz want to avoid starting 0-2 and face the prospect of winning two out of three games in Memphis to avoid elimination. He is the glue that holds the Jazz together. Without him, the Jazz are just a nice collection of role players and specialists that play winning basketball. With him, the Jazz have a legitimate shot at winning a title.