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Donovan Mitchell's passing game is why Sunday's near triple-double isn't likely to be his last

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) makes a pass over Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

(Michael Conroy, Associated Press)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Indiana's Malcolm Brogdon dribbled down the side of the court as the clock ran down. The game had been decided but Donovan Mitchell didn't want Brogdon to simply run out the clock.

Mitchell, who had backed his close to the basket, needed one more rebound to reach a triple-double, so he yelled out for the Pacer guard to shoot.

"That was probably the only time I probably chased it," Mitchell said with a bit of a laugh.

Brogdon's shot did miss, but as Mitchell jumped up for it, the Pacers knocked it away. The horn sounded and Utah's regular season triple-double drought continued.

"I'm not the type of person to just go and chase it," said Mitchell, who had 27 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds during Utah's 103-95 win over the Pacers. "I believe if God wanted it to happen, it'd happen."

His teammates wanted it to happen, though. During a late timeout, they all let him know just how close he was to the statline that has alluded the Jazz since Carlos Boozer put up a triple-double against the then-Seattle Sonics in 2008. But it wasn't like the game was a blowout. Utah had just a 6- or 7-point lead and were trying to get to the finish.

"I was just like, look, like we can't lose this. They have guys who can hit shots, tough shots. So that was really where my head was at," Mitchell said.

That mindset helped Utah get a win, but it didn't lead to Mitchell getting that final rebound.

"If it happens, it happens. It's not something where I'm like, 'I need this or I need that.' No, at the end of the day, we got stops, made our free throws at the end, we executed down the stretch, which is huge," Mitchell said. "Joe got an offensive rebound on the free throw — never seen that before. So I think that's really where my head was just doing little things."

It's some of those subtle things that even put him so close to history. With Mike Conley sitting out due to a right hamstring injury he suffered on Friday against Charlotte, Mitchell was asked to do much more. The offense, for the most part, ran through him.

While Mitchell jumped into the national spotlight with his dunking ability (semi-related: Mitchell missed a dunk for the third straight game on Sunday) by winning the NBA Dunk Contest as a rookie, his more highlight-worthy plays have usually involved his passes. His baseball background has given him a feel for angles and how to release the ball that many players in the NBA simply don't have.

Over the last four years, he's learned how to get in positions to use that special ability. That helped him to career-high-tying 11 assists on Sunday.

"A lot of it for me it's just the mental reads, the film, understanding how I'm being guarded," Mitchell said.

It's knowing that Myles Turner is gonna blitz him when he comes off a pick and that Domantas Sabonis is not. But that's not where it ends. Mitchell might know someone is open based on how a defense is playing, but he still has to be able to set up the play.

In the second quarter on Sunday, Indiana's Goga Bitadze popped up on the pick-and-roll to stop Mitchell's drive. That meant Derrick Favors had an open roll to the basket — Mitchell just needed to get it there. But at 6-foot-3, getting the ball through traffic is sometimes easier said than done.

"Since I'm small, they typically put guys who are kind of taller and longer on me. I got to be able to set it up to get to the open guy," Mitchell said.

To get it to Favors, Mitchell had to cross over from his left to right hand between his legs to get in the correct position to slip the pass in. It looked flashy, yes, but it was simply a necessity.

"(I) had to get myself to my right hand to throw it," Mitchell said. "When it's Royce (O'Neale) understanding he's popping, so being able to bump back and throw it over the top. Or if it's a behind-the-back pass, it seems fancy but those are the ones I have to make because of my size."

Setting up the pass is something that Mitchell has been focused on this year so he can better help his teammates get in position to score. He's averaging a career-high 4.6 assists this season and the 11 he handed out on Sunday matches his career-best.

"Once I get to the passes, I feel like I can make it, but I gotta get there because of how guys are playing me and also the fact that I'm 6-3," Mitchell said.

He appears to have got the passing down. Next time, though, his team would like him to get one more rebound.

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