SALT LAKE CITY — A smile appeared on Donovan Mitchell’s face, which is hard to do after a loss.
The reason for the quick change of mood: He had just been asked about Tony Bradley.
“This is the most aggressive, the most dominant I've seen, that we've all seen, Tony,” Mitchell said of the reserve big man that has put together a confidence-boosting stretch of play over the last week.
Bradley, though, isn’t alone; it’s the most aggressive and dominant the Utah Jazz bench has been all season.
In fact, the reason why the Jazz were even in the game against the defending NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors, was because of the five-man unit of Bradley, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Jordan Clarkson.
With the Jazz down five, that unit started off the second quarter on a 12-1 run. Then in the fourth quarter, they cut a 10-point lead down to four, which allowed the Jazz’s stars a chance to win the game.
The best thing about Monday’s performance: this wasn’t an isolated incident.
The same thing happened in Boston — with that same group leading the Jazz to a win; and the fact that such huge swings are coming against playoff teams bodes well for Utah come late April.
“It’s great to have the bench give us a lift like they did in Boston, too,” Rudy Gobert said. “It's a big plus for us and, you know, I think the best teams in the world have a very good bench, especially in the playoffs. You need the bench to give you a lift. If our bench keeps playing that way I think it's going to be huge for us.”
But it’s taken some time to find the right rotations to make things work.
Ingles bounced in and out of the second unit, Mitchell and Conley both took turns leading the bench, and the Jazz made a reserve-saving trade for Clarkson after it was the bench that was mostly to blame for a swoon in November and December.
Health and personnel have changed throughout the season, and now the Jazz look to have found something that is working.
“Mike’s been a leader and obviously had the ball in his career a lot, so we kind of play off him a little bit,” Ingles said. “Obviously, when JC’s going, we’re going to JC as well, too, because he seems to be a mismatch on the offensive end a lot of the time. He can obviously get to the hoop pretty efficiently. And I think between the three of us, obviously, we all have a handle, we just kind of mix up who can handle, where our mismatch is, what we’re trying to attack.”
That’s been the key to the recent success of the bench unit. Sometimes it’s Ingles running things, sometimes it’s Conley, sometimes Clarkson is taking over.
“Tony’s done a great job screening, getting on the rim, which opens it up for all of us,” Ingles said. “Each game we just try to figure out who’s going or what’s happening and find the mismatch and attack it.”
And with success comes confidence. Conley, Ingles and Clarkson are well established in the league; but for a player like Bradley, he’s needed to feel some of that success to take the next step.
His stat lines are modest — he finished with 5 points and four rebounds on Monday — but he’s impacting the game in ways he has never before. He’s serving as a defensive anchor, challenging shots and he’s developed pick-and-roll chemistry with both Conley and Ingles, which has allowed the offense to thrive with the lineup.
“He's been doing really well,” Mitchell said. “I think we're all you see our reaction. We're all happy for him when he gets going.”
Even in a loss, that makes Mitchell smile.