Utah Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points in 26 minutes during Wednesday night’s 141-129 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals — looking like he hasn’t missed a beat after missing over a month because of a right ankle sprain.
“I feel good,” Mitchell said after the game, which tied the series 1-1. “I’ve put myself in kind of treacherous situations to come back and be ready for playoff intensity. I felt better than I anticipated, and as a whole, I think the biggest thing as a team is we did a lot of good things tonight … so it made my job easier. I didn’t have to come in and just do everything. I was able to find my spots and attack. And kind of just do what I do. And my teammates made it really easy for me.”
Mitchell’s performance came just a couple of days after he acknowledged being “frustrated and upset” after being a late scratch prior to Game 1. Following all the intrigue surrounding his absence and a surprising Game 1 loss to Ja Morant and the upstart Grizzlies, Mitchell’s teammates and coaches knew the 24-year-old changed the game quickly.
“Any time you’ve been out for a significant period of time, I think there’s a tendency to try to really put a stamp on the game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And I thought he really let the game come to him. He was patient. He got a few catch-and-shoot 3s early where he got good looks, got off the ball and kind of made a simple play. And then I think as the game went on, you saw him attacking the basket, but he really played within himself. I thought he just made the right play and obviously it was good to have him back. It certainly changes our team.”
Mitchell, who had been sidelined since April 16, said he is still getting over the mental hurdle that comes with trusting his ankle on the floor again. The good news for the Jazz is that his play left little doubt that he still has the ability to dominate when needed.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat that,” Mitchell said of the mental aspect of the injury. “There’s definitely a thought. You haven’t been in this position in five weeks. And just kind of going out there and everything you’ve been doing has been controlled. It’s been controlled throughout the workouts, so to kind of go out there in the middle of the playoffs and then try and compete, I think there’s definitely a bit of nerves. … It’s just basketball, but jumping off the foot for the first time that hard, landing, cutting those are the things you definitely think about, but once you get through the first two, it’s like ‘All right, I’m good.’ You trust it, and I was fine.”
Jazz center Rudy Gobert echoed Snyder’s sentiments regarding Mitchell’s ability to change the feel of the entire team. After the deflating Game 1 loss, the Jazz needed the spark Mitchell provided, and his teammates knew it.
“It’s been more than a month, so I think he was really antsy to get back out there,” Gobert said. “And we missed him, so it was great getting his energy, his positivity, all that, his aggressiveness. And obviously his talent, it was definitely a good time to have him back, and tonight he definitely did a great job. I didn’t feel like he was out. I felt like he had the kind of game that wasn’t the first game back after months, so it just shows that he’s been working, he’s been putting in the work and he’s been ready for that moment.”
Despite the strong showing in his return, Mitchell was hesitant when asked whether his minutes would increase heading into Game 3 on Saturday night in Memphis.
“It’s really kind of play it by ear and kind of feel,” Mitchell said. “I won’t come out and say, ‘Yeah, I expect to play 35.’ I think the biggest thing is how the game goes, how I’m feeling, I’m trusting my body. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and understanding that you got to trust the process in that sense. Understanding that you can’t go out there and just try to go full-bore. That’s how things happen. … Tonight was a good start. It’s 1-1, we got to continue to build upon that, and that’s where my head is at.”