Staring at a seven-point deficit early in the third quarter, Donovan Mitchell recognized the coverage. After observing how he was defended in the first half, he anticipated what the L.A. Clippers were doing.
The Clippers, led by head coach Ty Lue, had plenty of practice dealing with a dynamic ball-handler and decision-maker in the first round. After seven grueling battles with Luka Dončić, they felt as if their preparation level was the highest it could be.
Mitchell, in his fourth playoff run since being drafted by Utah Jazz in 2017, is already used to being the focal point of a defense. For the most part, he’s acted as the only high-level shot creator Utah has featured since his rookie year. The amount of reps he’s had against various pick-and-roll coverages outweighs most – if not all – players in the league his age or younger.
As Mitchell receives the ball after a missed pull-up by Paul George, he’s already aware of what’s coming. With Kawhi Leonard trying to pick him up from 26 feet, there is one way to break into the seams of L.A.’s perimeter defense.
Royce O’Neale, jogging parallel to Mitchell, comes over to set the ball-screen. The Jazz know Lue is rolling with the “show-and-recover” defensive method against Mitchell. Leonard calls for Reggie Jackson to jump out and “tag” Mitchell, allowing for the Clippers to hopefully get back to their assignments a few seconds later.
The only problem? Mitchell counters it. With beautiful misdirection and explosive burst off his right-handed crossover, Mitchell splits both defenders. The initial obstacle in his rearview. He had absolutely no concern about Morris sliding over as the low-man and protecting the rim, either:
Mitchell single-handedly leaves three Clippers in the dust, finishing at the rim and making everything look far too easy. Lue had to call timeout, hoping to stop Utah’s momentum. In just over two minutes, he watched his team’s 13-point lead get sliced to five.
The Clippers searched for answers to slow him down, but none were successful. They deployed similar coverages they used against Dončić in the previous series, but none of it mattered once Mitchell reached deep into his bag and flipped the switch into unguardable mode.
There may not be a single player in the NBA who’s better at splitting two defenders at the top of the arc in pick-and-roll coverage. Utah kept making the Clippers choose between a lot of unfavorable options when O’Neale would screen for Mitchell, attempting to get Leonard out of the mix.
It didn’t matter if it was Jackson or Luke Kennard as the guard trying to “hide” defensively. Once they stepped up to show on Mitchell, he would split the two, find himself in the paint, and make the Clippers scratch their heads:
Aside from having very little time to prepare for this series after a seven-game war with Dallas, the Clippers seemed to underestimate how crafty Mitchell can be in these situations.
What really jumped out during Utah’s Game 1 victory was how much Mitchell caught them off guard with his speed and acceleration out of the pick-and-roll. Although he’s not the same type of force as Dončić as a singular offensive weapon, Mitchell is certainly quicker. He’s able to blow by defenders and get into the heart of a defense a little easier than Dončić, who mainly falls in love with step-back jumpers and using his power to create solid offense out of the mid-post.
It will clearly take the Clippers a day of film review to figure out the best strategy against Mitchell when he’s operating at the top of the arc.
Late in the game, trailing by six, Leonard saw the same thing unfolding. This time, the Clippers gave up the switch with Kennard being asked to stay in front of Mitchell. You can see what the threat of Mitchell’s pull-up shooting has done to the defense by this point.
Kennard is forced to step up way too far, making him vulnerable to a drive-by. Leonard wants to come over to send a double. Mitchell pinpoints it, speeds up his attack, and once again does not care about the Clippers’ weakside rotation at the rim (nor should he when L.A. is playing without Ivica Zubac):
There were countless instances in the second half where Mitchell sensed nobody on the floor was able to contain him, especially if he mastered the timing and knew how to attack all of the different looks L.A. was throwing his way.
Even if they decided to put a bigger wing on him, such as Nic Batum, Mitchell trusted his improved shooting touch – particularly on step-backs from the left side of the floor – to be the answer. It’s actually a bit of lazy defense by Batum to give up this much air space, which is essentially an open look on the release:
Then, with a traditional center on the floor, if the Clippers chose to switch on these handoffs, Mitchell had either Zubac or Kennard in the action. If Kennard was in front of him, he knew there was another opening for either a drive or step-back three. Kennard closes out, but even Mitchell knows this contest isn’t going to affect the shot:
The Jazz, despite trailing by 14 points in the first half, were able to catch fire in the third quarter. It didn’t seem to cool down, either. After having just a 95.9 offensive rating in the first half, Utah responded by increasing that to a stunning 147.7 offensive rating across the final two quarters.
Everything was sparked by Mitchell, who scored 32 of his 45 points in the second half alone – 16 in each quarter.
After the game, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder made it known that Utah’s offensive process was acceptable in the first half due to the solid opportunities they got, but that his team really loosened up in the second with more emphasis on drive-and-kick offense.
“I thought, for the most part, the looks were getting early were good shots,” Snyder said. “I thought we were a little bit rushed. As the game progressed, we settled down a bit more and started attacking the paint. We don’t have to take quick threes all the time. If the ball can break the paint, we can still generate those shots. I thought we settled in. I thought Donovan settled in.”
Basketball is obviously more nuanced than just “Team X made more of their open shots than Team Y, and that’s why one team is up double-digits.” But, sometimes – especially in small samples – that’s what it comes down to.
As Ben Dowsett of Jazz Film Room points out here, Utah actually had a higher expected effective field goal percentage on their threes in the first half than the second half:
For the game, both the Jazz and Clippers generated 19 wide-open threes with at least six feet of space between the shooter and defender. That accounted for 38% of the Jazz’s total long-range attempts, and 45.2% of the Clippers’ total attempts.
Utah’s shot profile has been one of the NBA’s best this entire season, and perhaps one of the smartest the league has seen in history. They can
“We talked about continuing to push the ball and move the ball,” Snyder said. “When we struggle, it’s when the ball stops.”
They can hurt you in such a variety of ways that it’s difficult for any opposing coach to choose what to live with. Utah launched 28 off-the-dribble threes in Game 1, which was 20 (!) more than the Clippers. And it’s not like the Jazz even shot well on those more challenging – at least in theory – jumpers, either. They made eight of those 28 pull-up threes, giving them just a 28.6% efficiency mark.
In most scenarios, the opposing team will invite those numbers. The problem for the Clippers became their own offensive flow, which really stalled in the second half.
Utah just kept chipping away and eventually prevailed through an heroic effort by Mitchell, timely shots by Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanović, and ultimately a tremendous defensive performance by Rudy Gobert down the stretch of the fourth quarter. It culminated with Gobert blocking a game-tying three-point attempt by Marcus Morris in the corner. With 10 points and 12 rebounds, Gobert didn’t leave much of an imprint on the game until the second half, and his closeout and recovery on the final possession is what will stick in everyone’s mind.
Mitchell, who is now averaging an astounding 36.7 points per 36 minutes in his five playoff games this year on 53.3%-40.0%-89.7% shooting splits, wasn’t even feeling well when Game 1 started. He wasn’t about to make excuses for feeling a little under the weather, as he
“I didn’t know a lot of things right for my team in the first half,” Mitchell said. “It really kind of ate at me. It still does. Putting my team in a certain position. I felt like it was on me to come out there (in the second half), and just set the tone on both ends of the floor. I think that’s where my head was at. Tonight, that was getting to the rim. And I hit a few threes. But, who knows what it’s going to be next game. They’re going to make adjustments and so are we.”
When the Jazz start to get downhill and Mitchell is forcing rotations, that’s when Utah is at their best. That’s when they unleash everyone else and become the most dangerous team in the West.
The Jazz recorded 48 “drives” in Game 1, nine more than the Clippers. They only turned the ball over once on those 48 drives, scoring 31 points and passing out of 16 of them. For the Clippers, they only managed to score 15 points out of their drives to the rim while passing out 18 of them. Defensively, you could easily see the impact Gobert had the Clippers’ decisiveness once they got into the paint. Offensively, Mitchell was not shying away from pushing the ball into the middle and making the Clippers’ defense react.
“I thought Donovan, in the second half, he just put his head down and attacked us,” Lue said.
In the loudest building I’ve personally ever experienced, Salt Lake City was losing its mind once Mitchell started controlling the game. He notched his third career playoff game with 45-plus points, which already matches Kevin Durant, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Dirk Nowitzki – while exceeding names such as Shaquille O’Neal, Kawhi Leonard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Charles Barkley. For Mitchell’s playoff career (28 games), he’s scoring 28.1 points on a very high 34.4% usage rate.
In his four years in the league, he has routinely stepped up his individual production on the brighter stages. Although he’s yet to lift Utah past the second round, that’s been the most impressive part about his journey up to this point.
“He stays in attack mode,” George said about Mitchell after the game. “He has a strong body, so he uses that body to be explosive. I think he’s showing a lot of growth in that area. Just putting a team on his back and stepping up as their leader.”
Leonard, who tried to stay attached to Mitchell defensively in the fourth quarter before the ball-screen action ruined the plan, echoed George’s sentiments about how difficult he is to stick with.
“He’s just very aggressive,” Leonard said after the loss. “He’s going to keep shooting the ball and getting his teammates involved. We all just have to take the challenge and try to slow him down.”
Mitchell’s 32 points in the second half came on just 16 shot attempts and seven trips to the foul line. It was the most dominant half of basketball he’s played this season.
It was eerily similar to his second half performance in Game 1 of the 2020 first-round series versus Denver, where he scored 32 points on 15 shots and eight free throw attempts.
“He’s really determined,” Snyder said. “I don’t think he was feeling great tonight physically. He was a little nauseous, light-headed. He just wasn’t going to accept that. That’s where his mind is. There’s nothing he’s going to let get in the way of that focus.”
Regardless of the defensive matchup, pick-and-roll coverage installed by the Clippers, or deficit Utah was facing coming out of halftime, Mitchell knew it was his time.
He’s not old enough to be considered near his prime, but he’s not too young to be making expert reads and using his past experiences to dissect any defense.
“He’s able to make adjustments throughout the course of a game,” Snyder said. “He’s a smart player. He studies. When he’s doing something that maybe isn’t as productive, he’s able to make subtle adjustments. I thought he did that tonight.”
Mitchell’s most valuable trait? Perseverance. When things aren’t going his or the Jazz’s way, they don’t change their approach.
“The other thing is, he’s not afraid to fail,” Snyder added. “He’ll take the next shot. We want him to take open looks. If he misses a few of them, they are good shots. Keep taking them and keep attacking. That’s just who he is.”
Game 2 is set for Thursday, where the Clippers will try to avoid going down 0-2 for the second straight series.