SALT LAKE CITY — Days later, the opening plays of Game 2 still lingered for Donovan Mitchell.
He botched a handoff on the game’s first possession. He dribbled it off his foot on the second. He didn’t get to a loose ball.
“Obviously, you really can’t get any lower than the effort and the performance that I gave,” Mitchell said Friday. “It can only get better from there. That’s pretty much where I’m at.”
No one was denying his effort on Saturday during Utah's 104-101 loss to the Houston Rockets.
Mitchell began Saturday night with high-flying alley-oop and a 3-pointer off the glass as part of a 13-point first quarter. In the second half, he dove on the guard to beat Eric Gordon to a loose ball before dishing it to Ricky Rubio for an uncontested layup.
He was aggressive, he was forceful, he tried to will the Jazz to the win.
But for all those good things Mitchell did in his 34-point performance (a performance that had the Rockets’ Chris Paul questioning a reporter’s query, “Slow him down?! He had 34 points. We just tried to make it tough for him.”), the young Jazz star will remember the things that he could have done.
He’ll remember the five missed free throws, the three turnovers, and the 16 missed shots after the first quarter. And the last one will especially linger: a 3-pointer with under 10 seconds remaining that would have tied the game.
But it’s because he lets those moments stick with him that he has become who he is.
“I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell,” Jazz guard Kyle Korver said. “I have never seen someone so young take ownership of a team, take ownership of his play. Do it with charisma, do it with class. I have never seen that in my 16 years in the NBA.”
Korver wasn't answering a question. It was Korver, unprovoked, wanting to get a message out to Jazz fans — maybe Mitchell himself: the young Jazz guard is special.
“He missed a tough shot tonight, but that’s just going to be part of his story,” Korver said. “If you have played any meaningful basketball, you have a shot like that. If you don’t, that means you haven’t played in meaningful games or you haven’t been trusted by your coaches or your teammate to take that shot.”
Korver wasn’t in the Utah locker room during Mitchell’s breakout rookie campaign. And he wasn’t there as Mitchell led a playoff series victory over the Thunder last season. But he now knows why he was able to accomplish those things.
And it's the same reason he won't quickly forget his final miss from Saturday.
“Because of who he is, he’s going to put too much on that shot,” Korver said. “We missed free throws, we missed dunks, we missed layups, we missed 3s, it was not about that shot. It was not about that shot. We had so many more chances to win that game.
“I’m super proud of him,” he continued. “He put the whole thing on his back and he really tried tonight. For a young guy … that is really special. He’s on a great path. At the end of the day, this is just going to be part of his story, part of his journey.”