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For Donovan Mitchell, the real pain now begins

Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale, center, pats guard Donovan Mitchell, right, on the head as guard Mike Conley walks away in the closing minutes during the second half in Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers Friday, June 18, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale, center, pats guard Donovan Mitchell, right, on the head as guard Mike Conley walks away in the closing minutes during the second half in Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers Friday, June 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)



SALT LAKE CITY — Next week, Donovan Mitchell is going to turn on the Western Conference Finals and feel the sting. A couple weeks later, he'll turn on the NBA Finals and feel it all over again.

He'll feel it when he goes to the grocery store or fills up his car, or even when he does any other monotonous thing. He'll feel that the Utah Jazz should not have lost Friday.

And that pain will be much worse than anything he felt playing on his sprained ankle.

Mitchell finished off another superstar-confirming playoff run with a 39-point, nine-assist, nine-rebound performance in Friday's season-ending loss. But the lasting image of Mitchell from Game 6 won't be of him Euro stepping through the lane or draining a deep triple, it will be of Mitchell crashing down to the court after his right ankle gave out again late in the game.

He slammed the floor in pain, frustration and anger. The grimace he had hidden so well throughout the playoffs was now fully on display. The ankle had played a leading role in ending Utah's season.

"I don't know, it hurt," Mitchell said. "And it was just a lot going on. It was slipping away, that's about all I can say. Just tried to fight. That's it, really."

The Jazz won the first two games of the series when Mitchell was at least somewhat healthy. Once he re-injured his ankle in Game 2, he was a different player — and it was a different series.

"Not great," he said when asked how his ankle felt before the game. "But, I mean, it is what it is. It's not — I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Oh, I was hurt.' That's not me. You know what I mean? Just trying to find a way by any means necessary. That was the mindset."

Mitchell, bum ankle and all, averaged 32.3 points in the playoffs, including eight games of 30 or more points. In the second-round series alone, Mitchell had games of 45 points, 39, 37 (twice) and 30.

He couldn't get into the paint as easily, he couldn't even fully land or take off on his right foot — and he had to hide a grimace nearly the entire series. Yet, he still found a way to put up big numbers. Heck, he was a game-time decision in Game 6, and by the end of the first quarter he had already scored 16 points.

What would have happened if he was fully healthy? How far could he have carried the Jazz?

Those are the questions that are going to haunt him more than anything in the offseason. With how Utah played in the regular season and how wide open the field was, the Jazz felt they had the pieces to not just contend but win a championship. Mitchell tried not to let an injury — and one that significantly hampered him — derail those dreams.

"He's a warrior," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "And it's a unique player that has the competitiveness and the desire to play through that type of pain. And, obviously, you saw when he started the game. I think as the game progresses, it just becomes harder and harder on him because of his ankle."

Mitchell won't have to play on it again anytime soon, and his right ankle will get a much-needed break to recover and heal for next season. But that thought is way harder for Mitchell to endure than grinding it out in the playoffs on 1.5 legs.

One pain will subside; another one won't.

"It hasn't fully sunk in for me yet. I'm still in shock," Mitchell said. "This summer is going to look a little different because obviously I'm hurt. So I'm definitely trying to rehab first so I'm ready for next season. I don't know. I don't know what I'll be doing next week. I'll probably be sitting here mad as hell watching the games and doing whatever."

And wishing he was still laboring up the court, doing everything he could to win.

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