SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell looked down at the stat sheet following his first game in 40 days. He had just finished scoring 25 points in a limited 25 minutes, making a triumphant return to help the Utah Jazz pick up their first playoff win.
But it wasn't those points that stood out.
"I didn't have any assists, which is killing me right now," Mitchell said following Utah's Game 2 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on May 26.
Mitchell offered up a pretty simple explanation for the lack of assists that night: He was too excited to be back. He described it like being "a kid in a candy shop" — the rim was the alluring chocolate bar and everything else seemed to just vanish.
So, he was kicking himself when he put the film on the following day. That's when he finally saw Royce O'Neale open for a 3 as he drove to the hoop. Then he saw him again. And again.
He couldn't help but think, "How did I miss those?"
"Going into Game 3, I was like 'OK, this is what's going to be there,'" Mitchell said. "I told Royce this was going to be there."
Mitchell averaged 7.7 assists in the final three games of the series.
That's the superstar version of Mitchell. Not the assist numbers, mind you, but the ability to analyze the game and know just how to manipulate a defense. He played 120 minutes in the first round and scored 114 points — all after missing nearly six weeks.
Now in his fourth season in the playoffs, Mitchell isn't an up-and comer anymore; he is the offensive star of a true contender. He's leading the No. 1 seed in the entire postseason, and with LeBron James, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic all watching from home, he's about to have a very bright spotlight. How he lives up to that star billing will determine how far the Jazz can go this season.
The early returns are promising.
Mitchell averaged 28.5 points and 5.8 assists in under 30 minutes a game against Memphis while shooting 40% from 3-point range and getting to the free-throw line eight times per game. Memphis isn't the Clippers, but if there was any thought that his star-ascending bubble performance last season was a fluke, it was quickly dashed.
He played on a recently healed ankle and still got to wherever he wanted.
He played Game 5 on little sleep after spring allergies kept waking him up hour after hour and finished with 30 points and 10 assists in the closeout win.
"We look at guys like 'Bron, Chris Paul, Steph, AD, Kawhi — those guys are really good in the playoffs because those guys, they've seen it year after year after year," Mitchell said. "After a while, the coverages don't change; you understand guy's tendencies at this point; you know what you can get to, what you're capable of, how you will get there."
Mitchell is getting to that point now himself, and his ability to slow down the game and manipulate defenses will be key for Utah against the Clippers.
Los Angeles will play five-man lineups that can switch everything defensively — really the only thing that has mucked up the Jazz's offense, which relies heavily on Rudy Gobert screens to create space for their ball handlers.
Gobert can't punish smaller players in the post, though he should be able to feast on the offensive boards — or at least he must for the Jazz to be competitive. Utah's guards will then be tasked to break the paint themselves, and that means all eyes will be on Mitchell, especially if Mike Conley is forced to miss time.
Mitchell has averaged a cool 33.5 points per game in the past two postseasons, proving he's more than capable of handling such a weight. He and his teammates think he's better prepared now than ever before.
"I think his level of focus has been tremendous whether it's playoffs or regular season," Gobert said. "Obviously, you know that the playoffs is when everything really matters. But, you know, that regular season is what gets you to the playoffs and what gets you in a position to be at your best in the playoffs. I think his professionalism, his work ethic, everything has been (great); and I've seen that. This year, from the beginning of the season since training camp, his focus was at the top. As a leader, him doing that, he really sets the tone for everybody else."
The Jazz have seen switching defenses all year, including against this Clippers team, and they still finished with the best record in the league. Oh, and Mitchell is starting to be like the LeBrons, the Stephs and the Kawhis of the league — the playoff experience is starting to add up. He's been in the second round, faced defenses centered around stopping him, and been to a Game 7. That's all going to help as he stares down Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers.
"You're seeing everything at a different pace than I was last year, the year before that," Mitchell said. "And then taking the film work to a higher level too — understanding that it's good to watch the good highlights, but it also got to watch the ones where it's like, 'Man, I missed this,' or 'Man I missed that.' 'I got to see this.' 'This is what's going to be there if I attack there.'
"Being able to pick other players and watch how they attack those defenses, and then you implement that into your own game. So, you pretty much do all that for three to four years straight and everything starts to change for you."
And it could change everything for the Jazz.