It was deja vu all over again.
In the biggest game of the regular season, a game in which the Jazz were in from a competitive standpoint despite being drastically shorthanded, an injury appeared to change everything.
And that injury was to the same person.
Midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the Mavericks, Donovan Mitchell collapsed to the ground, grimacing in pain after Dallas’ Dwight Powell landed on his ankle. While rolling over and pounding the floor multiple times with both fists, the worst was expected. Not only was Mitchell going to miss the rest of the game, but the injury looked severe enough to keep him on the bench for the foreseeable future.
But anybody who knows Mitchell, who understands how he grew up, who his role models were, and everything he’s had to fight for and prove in the NBA, nothing was taking him out of the game.
“This was a big game. … Every competitor wants to be in there for his teammates,” Mitchell would later say.
“I was tired of it.”
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 17, 2022
It wasn’t as if Michell hadn’t been in the situation before. In fact, he was there nine months ago when Utah took on the LA Clippers in the second round of the playoffs.
After taking a 2-0 serious lead, disaster struck for the Jazz when Mitchell went down with another severe ankle injury. Despite heroics that will long be discussed in Utah basketball history, Mitchell’s severe limitations on both ends of the court allowed the Clippers to storm back and win the series.
So when he lifted himself off the floor Sunday night, bending over to examine the ankle before hobbling off, there was already no doubt in his mind that he was getting back out on the court.
After all, this was the biggest game of the season with massive postseason expectations. There was no way he would be on the bench while his teammates were on the court fighting.
“We came out with some energy, some fire. … I’m really happy with the guys that suited up because it could have gone the other way real quick,” Mitchell said postgame.
spida, spida, spida pic.twitter.com/XKjTrSFsG4
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 27, 2022
After trying to walk it off, Mitchell checked back in moments later, proceeding to play the next 12 minutes of game time before coming out for good midway through the fourth quarter with Dallas clearly in control.
Playing those last 12 minutes was a decision made by both Mitchell and head coach Quin Snyder, particularly in a moment where they met at midcourt during a timeout to discuss the possibilities.
For Mitchell, he believed he could still be an asset to the team due to his ability to make shots and “act” like he was good to go.
“I wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well, but just being out there drawing guys. … They were helping everybody on my drives, so I was getting guys shots,” he said. “Sometimes even just standing there allowed guys to get into paint. So I first told (Snyder) to leave me out there, and I’ll stand and space or let the eyes look at me, and I’ll get somebody a shot.”
For Snyder, he understood the situation, knowing the team would always be better when their three-time all-star is on the court. In the end, the trust he’s built with Mitchell throughout their time together was the deciding factor.
“He felt like it wasn’t that bad, and if he came out, he wouldn’t be able to come back in,” Snyder said. “With certain players, there’s a relationship. Sometimes the coach has to trust the player, and sometimes players have to trust the coach. … I trusted him.”
As for Mitchell’s teammates, especially 15-year veteran Mike Conley, it wasn’t even about the result. It was about the leadership that he showed, which can lead to bigger and better things.
“I know how important this game was for Don and our team in general,” Conley said. “So no matter what happened, he was going to go back out there and play. We all kind of felt that way. We don’t want him to risk anything, obviously, if it was just too much, but he felt capable of playing, and guys saw his leadership in that aspect.”
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 25, 2022
Although the game didn’t go Utah’s way, the Jazz walked away with a different — and arguably much more valuable — victory. They proved to themselves that they are a team that will never back down from a challenge regardless of the scenario.