Donovan Mitchell has been very fortunate to be on a team that has made it to the playoffs every year that he has been in the league. The Utah Jazz are very fortunate that Mitchell has turned into a star player and helped lead them to multiple postseason appearances. It’s natural, though, to get a taste of success and want more.
First- and second-round playoff exits just aren’t going to cut it anymore. Mitchell wants to win a championship. So do the rest of his Utah Jazz teammates. Of course they do. And they also realize that in the grand scheme of things they won’t have many opportunities at that kind of glory.
Father time is undefeated and though Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and a number of the other players on the Utah Jazz roster are still young, their window for winning a championship is small.
“We need to hold ourselves to a high standard,” Mitchell said on Wednesday via Zoom. “You know, we blew a 3-1 lead. We lost in the first round, and there’s no time for that. There’s no time for slow starts.”
The Jazz do not have an easy road to the Finals. They’ll be up against doubt every step of the way and there will be very few outside of the Jazz fan base who think they have a legitimate shot at winning it all. Moreover, the Western Conference is stacked, a point that Mitchell himself made this week, and this season is likely to come with an insane amount of obstacles that have never been seen before.
So what’s the answer? How can the Utah Jazz avoid being just another team that makes the playoffs but is quickly ousted?
“You can’t be complacent when we’re up and we have to start focusing more on the details,” Mitchell said. “There’s no day where we can kind of have that lapse. ... There’s no easing our way into this. We need to come out ready to go because losing in the first round ain’t it no more.”
There’s a level of frustration that Mitchell feels that he’s trying to turn into motivation and so far, he thinks that it’s been working.
Despite the fact that this is the shortest ramp up to the regular season that any of the players have experienced in their careers, Mitchell said that this has been the best training camp he’s been a part of with regard to how focused and ready the team is.
It’s not like it’s just about getting past the first round either. Gobert said that he agrees with Mitchell and understands the frustration, noting that the Jazz have to be willing to have even higher expectations for themselves than they have in the past.
“We know that we’re going to have a window that’s going to be this year and in the next few years, and we have to take advantage of that window,” Gobert said on Thursday. “And I really feel like we’re going to have a chance to win it out if we keep going in the right direction and keep improving.”
Mike Conley is no stranger to the frustrations of being knocked down repeatedly in the playoffs. After failing to make it to the postseason his first three years in the league, Conley and the Memphis Grizzlies finally made it in 2011, only to be knocked out in the second round by the Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games.
The next year the Grizzlies were disappointed again after a grueling seven-game series with the Clippers in the first round.
But the Grizzlies finally made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2013 and Conley was able to feel what it’s like to be just a step away from the Finals. With that kind of experience, he’s able to impart some wisdom on his younger Jazz teammates.
“At this point in their career is about just staying resilient,” he said. “You’ve got to take all the losses early on, you’ve got to take them and learn from them. Keep them as lessons. I think the way we ended last season, with the last few seconds of the game, it came down to that Game 7, that kind of stuff sticks with you. I think it makes you better. I think it made Donovan, Rudy, myself, everybody on this team, have a more heightened sense of urgency going into the season.”
That sense of urgency has Mitchell already thinking about how the Jazz need to deal with any sort of disappointments and obstacles that the season might throw at them.
They might get off to a slow start, they might take some hard losses, players might end up moving in and out of the lineup because of COVID-19, there might be challenges ahead that they haven’t even anticipated. Mitchell’s message to the Jazz is that how they respond will define them.
“It’s how we approach it, how we manage it,” he said. “Do we have a slow start and then we sulk? I’m not saying we will, but you’ve got to prepare for all things because we may be ready to go, we may look good during January and then three of us may get (coronavirus). God forbid, but then that’s kind of a detour from your path. How do we make adjustments, how do we find ways to continue to push through?”
The Jazz are going to have to defy the odds and be committed top to bottom to the message that Mitchell is preaching if they want a shot at a title. It’s going to take resilience and maturity and some luck too, but the Jazz definitely have a window to become more than a first-round playoff team and Mitchell’s right, how they respond to what lies ahead could be the deciding factor.