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Donovan Mitchell's ankle saga looms over Utah's Game 1 loss

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) is directed to the end of the bench by  referee James Capers (19) as the Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies play in game one of their NBA playoff series at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 23, 2021.

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert woke up from his regular pregame nap to some surprising news: Donovan Mitchell wouldn't be playing in Game 1 of the playoffs.

That came as a shock. Mitchell had gone through shootaround, the game plan definitely included him, and Gobert likely heard his All-Star teammate say he was "ready to go tonight" to the media in the hours leading up to the game.

So why then was he suddenly out?

"Our medical staff met following shootaround and relayed the decision to hold Donovan out of tonight's game," Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "Obviously, Donovan being the competitor he is wants to be out there and hopefully he'll be out there soon."

For weeks, it's been anticipated that Mitchell would make his return from the sprained ankle he suffered on April 16 in the playoffs. That thought only seemed to be confirmed as the last week went on.

  • On Thursday, Mitchell went through a full practice and said afterward that he felt ready to be play a full game.
  • On Saturday, Snyder relayed to the media that Mitchell had looked good during practice that morning.
  • On Saturday evening, the Jazz released an injury report that didn't even mention Mitchell — seemingly confirming that he would play.
  • Then came his comments after shootaround Sunday morning.

"I'm ready to go tonight," Mitchell said. "No pain. I'm excited to get going."

So when the medical staff convened Sunday afternoon and made the decision to hold Mitchell out, it caught players a bit off guard, including Mitchell.

"Sorry y'all ... I wish I could say more ... I'll be out there soon," Mitchell wrote on an Instagram story following Sunday's Game 1 loss.

A Jazz team source said Mitchell did not re-aggravate the injury and had not suffered a setback; the medical staff were not yet comfortable with where the ankle was and felt like it was best for him to not play on it Sunday.

ESPN reported Monday that Mitchell began to work with his personal training staff on his ankle rehab after progress was slow in the early stages. With that information, a comment from Mitchell on Thursday after his first practice can be seen in a new light.

"I feel like it's kind of been progressing well for like the past two weeks, I want to say, I mean, you're gonna quote me on that, but I could be wrong," Mitchell said. "But I feel like that's when things started to go in the right way and projecting well."

So at this point, it appears to be a struggle between what Mitchell wants, what his own personal training staff has told him, and what the Jazz medical staff, who have the final say on the matter, believe is the best course of action. Regardless, if there was a chance Mitchell may have missed Game 1 — which, clearly, there was — it should have been better communicated to just about everyone.

"It was a big surprise," Gobert said. "I try to stay out on this; it's just gonna give me a headache. Hopefully he's good for next game; that's what I'm worried about. Obviously when you wake up you get ready for a game and you find out that your star player is not going to play, it throws you off a little bit. But at the end of the day, as long as he's healthy and ready for the next game, that's what matters."

The Jazz know, though, that as strange and oddly timed as Mitchell's ankle saga was, it was hardly the reason Utah lost Game 1. Would a dynamic scorer have helped a Jazz offense that looked like it was moving in mud for most of Sunday's game? Of course, but Utah had played plenty of games without Mitchell before and has performed much better than it did against the Grizzlies Sunday night.

"Obviously, that's tough on our team when we're expecting a guy like that back," said Mike Conley, who said he found out his backcourt partner wouldn't be playing until 4 p.m. Sunday. "But we've played this season with guys in and out of the lineup all year, so that's no excuse on how we go out there and perform on a nightly basis. But definitely a game changer when you know a guy of his caliber is not able to play."

Those thoughts were echoed by Bojan Bogdanovic, who scored 29 second-half points to try and fill Mitchell's late-game scorer role.

"He is our leader and best player, but I don't think that played a big role because we played the last 20 games without him and without Mike, and we were playing great," Bogdanovic said. "Of course we missed him, especially in the playoffs — we all know how good he is. I don't know what happened, honestly, with the decision for him and medical staff to keep him out so you should ask him."


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