It was a short playoff run for the Utah Jazz, who became the 10th franchise in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead when they fell to the Denver Nuggets in the first round.
If Mike Conley Jr.'s buzzer-beating shot hadn't rimmed out, the Jazz would have advanced to their third Conference Semifinals in four years. Instead, their season ended in the first round of the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The THRILLING FINISH to Game 7!@nuggets win the series 4-3 and advance to play the Clippers in the West semis! #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/6AkuYn9EaV- NBA (@NBA) September 2, 2020
Given the heartbreak and the fashion in which the team lost the series, it's easy to label the season, and especially the playoffs, a disappointment. However, it's imperative to remember that the team was playing shorthanded, and to look on the bright side, Donovan Mitchell took his leap to superstardom.
He was already a star, something he showcased as a rookie during the 2018 playoffs, but in a season where he became an All-Star for the first time, the 6'1 guard out of Louisville proved he was more than just that.
Evolving into a superstar
Missing Bojan Bogdanovic for the entirety of the 2020 playoffs, Utah was going to need Mitchell to score more than his regular season career-high average of 24.0 points per game. In fact, for the first two games, the team was even without their starting point in Conley, who had exited the bubble for the birth of his third child.
Utah was essentially playing with just seven rotation players with the last being Georges Niang who only averaged 16.3 minutes per game during the series. All of this, however, didn't seem to phase Mitchell.
With an increased responsibility, his level of play saw tremendous growth - not just in volume, but also in efficiency and assertiveness. He seemed to understand how and when to take over games in more ways than one.
Just take a look at his averages for the 2020 playoffs in comparison to the previous two. The numbers speak for themselves:
|2018 & 2019||23.4||5.6||3.9||38.9%||29.3%||82.9%|
He dropped 50 twice in the series, becoming only the third player ever to have multiple 50-point games in the same playoff series (Jamal Muray later became the fourth). His 57 points in Game 1 was the third-highest scoring performance by an individual in NBA playoff history. His 33 three-pointers were the most in NBA postseason history for a seven-game series.
What's more impressive is his how dominant his box score reads in the Jazz's two biggest wins of the series. In Game 2, which Utah won by 19, he finished with 30 points and eight assists with a +/- of plus-23 in 34 minutes. In the 37-point Game 3 blowout, he was a plus-19 in 27 minutes with just 20 points and an assist.
The on/off numbers emphasize his impact. In this postseason, the Jazz simply could not have won without him. While on the court, the team's net rating was a team-best plus-6.5 (among qualifiers) and in the 77 minutes he was on the bench, the team's net rating was a minus-8.3 (second worst).
In the 2018 or 2019 playoffs, such games would be a blip on the radar and not something he could string together consistently. The 2020 postseason in the bubble was a different story altogether.
Perfect complement to Rudy Gobert
The Jazz have a reputation of being among the best defensive teams in the league. Prior to the 2019-20 season, the franchise had a defensive rating that ranked seventh or better for four straight seasons (2015-19) and French center Rudy Gobert is a huge reason for that.
Utah obviously doesn't hope to be this shorthanded in future postseasons, so it certainly won't plan to depend on Mitchell to this extent offensively from a volume standpoint. Having said that, the true mark of his evolution into a superstar would be if Mitchell can maintain or even further his impact on the game with fewer touches.
Given his style of play and his ability to carry the team offensively, Mitchell has been a perfect complement to the franchise's other superstar - two-time Defensive Player of the Year Gobert. He takes care of the team's offence while the Frenchman anchors the team's defence in the middle.
As the guard continues to take strides to earn his stripes as a defender, which he certainly did in the bubble, the duo continues to grow into the perfect yin-yang for the Jazz.
Heading into the league's hiatus back in March, there was reportedly tensions between these two superstars. It stemmed from a unique circumstance where Gobert, the first player to test positive for Coronavirus in the league, was seen touching all of the media's microphones and recording devices in a joking manner during a press conference a couple of days before he had tested positive. What made matters worse: Mitchell was the only other person to test positive from the Jazz's 58-person traveling party.
Over the course of all games in the bubble, the two seemed to have put that behind them and focus on what's important - winning. By the time Game 7 against the Nuggets came around, the duo had been consistently combining for plays in games like the one below.
🗣🗣🗣 pic.twitter.com/6TGhIw3K8w- utahjazz (@utahjazz) September 2, 2020
Only the beginning
Close to a day after Mitchell and the Jazz's season came to end, Yahoo Sport's Chris Haynes reported that the two parties were expected to finalize a max contract extension which would be a five-year deal in the vicinity of $155-$160 million.
That keeps him in with the franchise until at least 2026, giving the organisation ample time to build a contending team around a superstar who refuses to settle.
"This isn't the last of it," Mitchell said after losing Game 7 to the Nuggets. "This is me scratching the surface."
📹| Just the 𝙗𝙚𝙜𝙞𝙣𝙣𝙞𝙣𝙜.#TakeNote | 𝙵𝚞𝚕𝚕 𝚟𝚒𝚍𝚎𝚘 » https://t.co/HdceWE9HMd pic.twitter.com/TVAkpABnCe- utahjazz (@utahjazz) September 2, 2020
You need your franchise cornerstone to be motivated and find lessons, even in losses. Mitchell is that and much more.
"I know what I can do, how hard I've worked, how hard this team has worked. This won't be the end of it. That's what's fueling me. This ain't the end. This is just the beginning. I'm ready to go hoop again right now. I think we all are. This is just the beginning."
It was just one series, but Mitchell's performance in the 2020 playoffs is certainly one to remember. When we see him continue to improve and carry this momentum into next season and beyond, we will always point to that one series to represent when Mitchell took the leap to superstardom.
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