Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Donovan Mitchell's return has Utah Jazz looking like a title contender again

When the Utah Jazz dropped Game 1 of their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, it was like all of the whispers of their playoff doubts were coming to life.

The Grizzlies were, in fact, the last No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed, although it was an entirely different roster with Zach Randolph and company pulling off the surprise victory over Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in 2011. Would Utah be the next victim?

The Jazz started the series shorthanded, competing without All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who had missed over a month of action with a severe ankle sprain. There was a mix-up between the franchise cornerstone and the team's training staff regarding his availability for Game 1, as Mitchell believed he was ready to play before being scratched from the lineup just moments before the opening tip.

He was very open about his frustrations surrounding the decision, but ultimately left the situation with a mentality of moving on, "The biggest thing for us is moving forward. We lost Game 1, and we've got s--- to handle. Excuse my language, we've got s--- to handle moving forward."

After all, the last two teams that were crowned NBA champions were each top seeds that dropped their opening game of the playoffs to a lower-seeded team.

And once Mitchell returned to the court, the Jazz immediately looked like the dominant team we saw hold down the best record in the league all season long.

The 24-year-old showed no signs of rust despite missing the team's last 17 games. With averages of 28.5 points, 5.8 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 45.0 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from 3 and 90.3 percent from the free throw line, Mitchell would lead Utah to four consecutive wins to advance to the Conference Semifinals.

But it was more than just impressive averages that show the impact the superstar had on his team's success.

The raw numbers will tell you that the Jazz were +50 with Mitchell on the floor and -8 with him on the bench for the series, making a 58-point difference. The advanced on/off stats back Mitchell's importance, with a team-best net rating of 19.8 on the floor versus a -3.1 net rating off the floor - good for a 22.9-point difference per 100 possessions.

Donovan Mitchell's on/off stats in first round
Off. Rating Def. Rating Net Rating
On court 130.6 110.7 19.8
Off court 112.5 115.6 -3.1

And if you're more in to the basics: Mitchell was Utah's leading scorer in all four games he played in, lead the team in assists twice and was also the game-high scorer in three of the four contests.

Dishing out missile passes like this...

...and burying tough buckets like this...

...in a close-out Game 5 to ensure the Jazz would advance out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season gives you an idea of how comfortable Mitchell is back on the floor.

It's rare that a player would have as much postseason experience as the 24-year-old does, leading Utah to the playoffs in all four seasons of his careers so far.

Coming off of a disappointing exit last season, blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets despite going for 50 points twice and 40 points once - one of the most remarkable individual series in NBA history - Mitchell still has more to prove.

If he's going to advance to the first Conference Finals appearance of his career, he'll have to go through the new favourite in the West in the LA Clippers, who just embarked on an epic comeback of their own to advance to the second round.

The opportunity to leap into the top tier of players in the NBA is there, Donovan Mitchell just needs to continue to make all the difference for the Utah Jazz and keep their championship aspirations alive to make it happen.

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