The Memphis Grizzlies had kept things competitive through four games against the Utah Jazz. The scrappy, young team had upset the No. 1 Jazz in the opening game of their first-round playoff series and then made the Jazz work really hard down the stretch of Games 2, 3 and 4, clawing back and never letting the Jazz get away with playing sloppy.
But on Wednesday, with a chance to close out the series, Utah All-Star Donovan Mitchell was on a mission to show the Grizzlies and everyone else who the better team was.
As soon as the ball was tipped and Game 5 was underway, Mitchell was relentless. He scored 14 of his 30 points in a first quarter that saw the Jazz break a franchise playoff record for most points scored in a single quarter (47). The Jazz went into the second quarter with a 20-point lead, but it wasn’t enough.
“You can’t give a team like that life,” Mitchell said of the Grizzlies. “You give them some glimmer of hope and then they come out there and start making shots, so we just wanted to try and take that from them early.”
The Jazz would go up by as many as 36 points in the wire-to-wire rout of Memphis, making any last-ditch attempts by the Grizzlies seem futile, and through it all, Mitchell was superb.
His game-high 30 points came on 11 of 16 made field goals, including going 5 of 8 from 3-point range. He dished out 10 assists and grabbed six rebounds, adding to a masterful performance that saw him slice up the defense, send needle-threading passes to teammates and hit step-back daggers in the face of his competition.
But it wasn’t as easy as he made it look.
Midway through the first quarter, Mitchell intentionally committed a foul in order to get out of the game. He went straight to the bench and breathed heavily as he waived off team trainers. He wasn’t hurt; he just needed to catch his breath.
After the game, Mitchell spoke with reporters, and in between questions he coughed, tried to clear his throat and was clearly having trouble breathing through his nose.
Was he under the weather?
He coughed and then laughed when I asked him the question.
“We did what we’re supposed to do, and now we’ve got to go out there and take care of this next round.” — Donovan Mitchell
“Yeah, these allergies are kicking my butt,” he said. “I was up every hour on the hour last night. Probably the worst sleep I’ve ever had in my life, but such is life. It happens. I’ll be fine.”
Who hasn’t been hit with a head cold or had our seasonal allergies exacerbated by travel or lack of sleep? That certainly is life, but most of us don’t play professional basketball on the most intense stage in the world. Mitchell did that and he made it look like a cake walk.
In Games 2, 3 and 4, Mitchell led the Jazz to wins over the Grizzlies, but he wasn’t very efficient. He made up for it by performing well at the free-throw line and staying engaged on the defensive end.
But in Game 5, everything came together despite his cough, stuffed nose and lack of sleep. On Wednesday, Mitchell shot 68.8% from the field, 62.5% from 3 and 100% from the charity stripe. Pretty good for a guy who had the worst night of sleep of his life.
He was the leader on the floor in a closeout game and looked every bit the part. He was unselfish, efficient, poised, calm and smart and took the Jazz to a level they had yet to show through this playoff series.
Mitchell has shown tremendous growth year to year and continues to do so even game to game. In his fourth season, he continues to elevate himself and take on responsibility as one of the leaders of the Jazz team, and though he recognizes the accomplishment of winning the first round, he knows the Jazz can still do more.
“We did what we’re supposed to do,” he said on Wednesday, “and now we’ve got to go out there and take care of this next round.”
Mitchell will have plenty of time to rest and recoup over the next few days as the Jazz wait for their second-round opponent to be decided. He won’t have to travel until Game 3 of the next round. He’ll have more time to rest his ankle and get over the seasonal allergies.
But on Wednesday night he made it clear that even if he’s hurt or under the weather or battling back from injury or struggling to catch his breath, he can still lead this Jazz team.