OKLAHOMA CITY -- Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Russell Westbrook hauled big-boy reputations and 221 games of playoff experience into a tight fourth quarter at home against the Utah Jazz. Based purely on that, the possibilities along with the scales seemed tilted in their favor Wednesday.
And when the buzzer sounded and the outcome was decided and fans rubbed their disbelieving eyes, those Oklahoma City Thunder's star trio found themselves on the bad side of the 102-95 score. Not only did they lose, but they were collectively outscored 13-2 in the fourth by Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell ... who just wrapped up his second career playoff game.
This Western Conference first-round series is tied 1-1 because the Jazz revealed themselves for who they are, and in a big way. They’re a dogged defensive team, perhaps the league’s best, and they’re led almost exclusively by a kid (in NBA years anyway) -- although Mitchell never really looked like a rookie from the time he first suited up.
He’s playing a beefy role, the kind that rookies don’t normally do or get because they lack the ability, wisdom and quite simply aren’t put in that position by their coach. Those rules don’t apply to Mitchell, especially when the game gets tense. His number is called more than a hotline and that hasn’t changed even here, in the postseason and when matched against the reigning Kia MVP in Westbrook.
“We’ve given him that respect all season,” said Joe Ingles, “and there’s no reason to take it from him now.”
Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring this season with 20.5 points per game and played 33.4 minutes per game. Only a handful of rookies in NBA history have led a playoff team in scoring, most of those are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Utah made him the team’s lead singer almost instantly, partly because he proved himself right away, but also by necessity. After losing Gordon Hayward to free agency, nobody on the club brought the goods to wear that big a backpack. And when Rodney Hood was dealt at midseason, the Jazz lost their primary No. 2 option as well.
None of it mattered to Donovan or affected his flow. He won the Verizon Slam Dunk contest during All-Star weekend yet also shot a respectable 34 percent on 3-pointers. He’ll be in the running for Kia Rookie of the Year, and while Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers will probably win that award, Mitchell has pole position for Rookie of the Playoffs -- especially after Wednesday.
As the fourth quarter began, Mitchell was in the midst of an uneven game. He missed all seven of his 3-pointers, didn’t attempt a first-half free throw and admittedly found himself drifting at times against OKC.
“There was a point where I stopped being aggressive,” he said. “I felt I left them off the hook, to be honest.”
That’s where his maturity and poise perked up. Rookies tend to freeze in these situations where the intensity doubles.
For Mitchell, it was motivation.
He played the final 11 minutes of the quarter and helped the Jazz pull away, finishing with 28 points (making eight of nine free throws in the second half) and six rebounds.
In the final two minutes, he isolated on one of the NBA’s top defensive players, but George was helpless after Mitchell executed a spin move and finger-rolled in a layup.
“I had to change up,” said Mitchell. “My mindset was to go back to being aggressive.”
A handful of times during timeouts and after the whistle, he lectured his teammates -- whether it was veterans Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert or anyone else. It further proved how a veteran team is showing respect to a rookie and allowing him to grow into a leader.
“We’re all giving advice to each other on the floor,” Mitchell said. “That’s what we are as a team. Everyone’s engaged and giving you information, telling you what needs to be done, and what needs to be changed. That’s what our team is all about.”
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