The Utah Jazz were a quarter and a half away from a gentleman’s sweep of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night, but then Russell Westbrook and Paul George decided that they didn’t feel much like going gentlemanly into that good night, and so now we’re going to have a Game 6 back in Salt Lake City. While they might be reeling after blowing a 25-point third-quarter lead, the Jazz still control the series, holding a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven and having the chance to finish it off on their home court on Friday … and from the sound of it, Donovan Mitchell isn’t too interested in making a return flight to OKC this weekend.
At least, that’s the vibe Utah’s rising star rookie gave off as he engaged in a bit of back-and-forth with a razzing Thunder fan while walking off the court following Oklahoma City’s thrilling Game 5 win:
— Forrest Life Is Like A Box Of Chocolates Gump (@forrest_witt) April 26, 2018
Mitchell reportedly kept that same energy as he made his way to the locker room:
— Adam Mikulich (@AdamMikulich) April 26, 2018
— Jake Edmonds (@JakeKUTV) April 26, 2018
Mitchell’s got every right to feel confident in his team’s chances of closing out on a home court where the Jazz have gone 30-13 this season, and just beat the Thunder by a total of 30 points over two playoff games. It’d also make sense if he was, to some degree, bowing his back out of frustration after having gone 5-for-16 from the field in the deciding 20 1/2 minutes of the game.
After spending much of the first four games of the series torching Oklahoma City’s pick-and-roll defense, Mitchell struggled to find clean looks and angles to penetrate in the second half. As noted by Andy Larson of KSL.com, a Thunder lineup heavy on athleticism and length — which Billy Donovan enabled when he parked Carmelo Anthony on the bench in favor of Jerami Grant — began aggressively switching screens on the perimeter, doing a much better job of keeping the ball out of the paint and enticing Utah’s ball-handlers to settle for contested outside shots. (A big part of that work: swingman Alex Abrines, who dug in and hustled to keep Mitchell in front of him when he drew the matchup.)
With a better balance of how and when to attack — more decisive moves by Mitchell, more aggression from Ricky Rubio, more moving the ball from Utah’s catch-and-shoot role players — the Jazz might have been better equipped to stem OKC’s run. Instead, they clanged jumpers, allowing the Thunder to build up a head of steam, and the avalanche was on.
If the Jazz can do a better job of staying patient and finding counters to Oklahoma City’s switches — finding ways to get Derrick Favors the ball against a smaller cross-matched defender might be a nice idea — and keep Westbrook and Paul George from turning in another God-mode half, Utah could be well positioned to make Mitchell a man of his word and finish Round 1 off on Friday. If not, though, they’ll be forced to once again board a plane for Oklahoma City to face the pressure of a winner-take-all Game 7 on the road in front of thousands of screaming fans eager to remind the rookie of how his postgame prediction went bust.
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