Utah Jazz: Clippers pouncing on Donovan Mitchell’s weakness

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports) /

Utah Jazz prodigy Donovan Mitchell is suddenly left with a major challenge.

It was the first time Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell went scoreless in a quarter during these 2021 NBA Playoffs. Or put another way, it was the first time the 24-year-old looked human since returning from a mid-April right ankle sprain that kept him out through Game 1 of the squad’s first-round bout with the Memphis Grizzlies.

The first 12 minutes of Saturday’s Game 3 in the Western Conference Semifinals against the No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers was quite ugly for Mitchell. No, make that rather stuffy — especially when considering the two-time All-Star has scored 0.78 points per minute for his career in the postseason, an all-time mark that trails only Michael Jordan’s 0.80 average.

Granted, Mitchell recovered with 16 points in the second quarter and 30 points for the game. However, he and the rest of the No. 1 seed Jazzmen never seemed to fully recover from their early lackluster execution and ultimately suffered a lopsided 132-106 defeat.

How the Utah Jazz smooth operator found himself stuck in his tracks

By turning Donovan Mitchell away from his right in his goose-egg first quarter, the Los Angeles Clippers took away the righthanded phenom’s preferred opening route to the basket. They thereby asserted control with a 27-23 lead over the Utah Jazz entering the second quarter, which grew into a 64-49 halftime advantage.

Early on, the Clippers lured Mitchell into congestion. They did so collectively.

The on-ball defender for Los Angeles would employ a perfect stance to hedge the bucket-getter to his left. Then whenever Mitchell insisted on barrelling to his right anyway, the help-side Clippers converged at just the right moment to prevent the 6-foot-1, 215-pound playmaker from, well, making his signature plays.

Instead of smoothly seeking out his teammates on the perimeter or simply pulling up early for jumpers in the first quarter, Mitchell too often responded with tunnel vision on a prize closer to the rim, which he repeatedly failed to reach. Perhaps this played a part in several Utah Jazz players’ lackadaisical play on both ends of the floor in the second quarter and beyond.

Sure, other teams have incorporated this method to contain Mitchell and discombobulate what is an otherwise potent Jazz attack. Yet this time, the timing was absolutely critical.

Facing a 2-0 deficit, the Clippers were able to set the tone in the opening frame of the series’ first clash in Los Angeles by silencing the man that had shredded their defense to the tune of 82 points across the first two outings in Salt Lake City.

Plus, maybe the Clippers believe that Utah’s sensation has subconscious ankle worries, which might be reducing his willingness to power off his right foot and cross over to his left with the same degree of explosion as before his sprain.

Now, add in the fact that Mitchell hobbled to the tunnel in the fourth quarter after apparently aggravating his right ankle. Although he returned to the sideline and later implied that everything is fine, rest assured that Los Angeles head coach Ty Lue and his gang will test the validity of those statements at 8 p.m. MT Monday when they host Utah for Game 4.

Meanwhile, Mitchell & Co. could welcome the return of Mike Conley from a right hamstring strain that has thus far kept the first-time All-Star point guard out of this series entirely. At this point, though, there’s still no telling when exactly the 33-year-old, who is set to become a free agent in the offseason, will lace ’em up again for the Utah Jazz.

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Finally, to be fair, it’s true that Donovan Mitchell’s pure brilliance, particularly in the playoffs, is off the charts for his age. But for every dazzling performance that he notches, he must realize that opponents are studying his every move with the intent of finding the most effective ways to force him to his left — for at least as long as that remains his only clearly visible weakness.