SALT LAKE CITY — Last summer, as the sting of a Game 7 loss defeat was only beginning to sink in, Donovan Mitchell was asked what he had learned about himself after a historic playoff series.
"I can't lie to you, I kind of was surprised a little of the things that I've done and accomplished," Mitchell said, following a series where he scored at least 50 points twice.
After falling to the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round this year, the Utah Jazz will go through some offseason changes. Dennis Lindsey is no longer the team's head executive and further shakeups are expected to be on the horizon. How drastic will those be? That remains to be seen.
The early series loss highlighted Utah's weaknesses — none more noticeable than a lack of depth and an over reliance on a singular style of play — and the team no doubt will try to address those this summer. But while the loss shined a spotlight on what Utah needs to do to improve, it also focused on what the team has.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Utah's shorter-than-expected playoff run is that Mitchell isn't surprising anyone anymore — himself included. The Jazz guard is simply one of the most lethal scorers in the game.
A quick look at the numbers: His 32.3 points per game he averaged in his 10 playoff games this season trailed only Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant; his 5.0 3-pointers made per game was second only to Lillard; and he was second in the playoffs in usage rating. Against the Clippers, he scored 30 or more in five of the six games, including a 45-point night in Game 1 and a nine 3-pointer performances in Game 6.
That's how he followed up his ascending first-round series in the bubble last season. And here's the kicker: he did it all on one leg.
He struggled to get in the paint at times (especially late in games) and didn't have his regular lift at the rim. He tried to hide when he grimaced and used any stoppage of play to get an additional break for his wounded ankle.
Yet, even with a bum ankle and defenses set up to stop him, he still found a way to put up huge numbers.
He might not have been able to drive into the paint as much as he'd like, but that didn't matter. He made shots over double teams and made contested fadeaways. He altered his shot arc on the fly to compensate for not being able to jump — and still made them. Mitchell shot 53% from deep and averaged a hair under 35 points per game against the Clippers.
With how he's shot in the last two postseasons, he's made it clear that any conversation regarding the best shooters in the league must now include him. As for the conversation about the players that can lead a team to a title, should a healthy Mitchell be on that list?
"Really, his performance was heroic," said Lindsey. "The fact that he played his best when his best was needed, and yet it's clear that he was suboptimal, was beyond remarkable. It speaks to his physical talents, his mental toughness, perseverance."
Remember the drama on the opening day of the playoffs when the Jazz medical staff didn't clear Mitchell to return? As he limped off the court game after game, it sure looked like they were correct in wanting to hold him out. But with him fighting through pain, he demonstrated that he can not just play through discomfort but alter his style on the fly to still be effective.
"In some ways it will get lost, because we didn't accomplish being the last team standing or, certainly, getting to the Finals," Lindsey said. "But it was a remarkable thing to watch him."
Mitchell's heroics will be nothing more than a footnote to the 2021 season as a whole. But it should mean more than that for the Jazz. It showed another step forward for Mitchell as he continues his growth to becoming one of the best players in the game — steps that have been clearly seen in each postseason.
In 2018, he found out ways to attack and finish in the paint against playoff defenses. In 2019, he learned how to bounce back from a missed buzzer beater and a horrific shooting performance in an elimination game. In 2020, he discovered how special he really could be. And this year, he learned how to control a game even when he wasn't fully healthy.
"Still not mentally ready for us to be over," Mitchell said following the Game 6 loss. "We worked so damn hard for us to be here. For it to happen like this, I think for me and for all of us, it's devastating. You try to fight through things and try to continue to battle and battle and fight. It's tough."
Another battle and another fight that will no doubt shape him. He came into the league with an improving but still spotty jumpshot and a lack of finishing moves around the basket. Four years later, he's a three level scorer that teams have to pick up near midcourt to try to force the ball out of his hands.
Which begs the question: How good can he be?
"Yeah, I really don't know," Jazz guard Mike Conley said. "He's gotten so much better in two years (since Conley's been in Utah). Like, I don't know if he's gonna start scoring 60 points per game — is that the next step for him? He can just do so many things. Even playing injured, he was phenomenal.
"It's a testament to how he works. I know how he works and how much he loves the game, so I have no doubt that he's capable of being a top 10, top 15 player in this league going forward."
In reality, he might already be there.