Motivating factor: Utah’s Donovan Mitchell sees silver lining in last year’s early exit to Denver

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·5 min read
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At the time, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell collapsed to the floor and showed strong emotions over the team’s playoff shortcomings.

As a sixth seed, the Jazz had just lost a seven-game first-round series to the Denver Nuggets after squandering a 3-1 lead. Less than a year later, Mitchell has viewed that outcome differently.

“In some respects, it was good that it happened. You learn a lot from losses,” Mitchell said after Monday’s practice. “If we were able to get away with not paying attention to the small details and winning that series? I’m not saying we wouldn’t be the same team we are today. I’m not saying that. But you definitely have a different chip and edge.”

Because of that, the Jazz believe they are better equipped to handle this year’s NBA postseason.

The Jazz already credited last year’s postseason failure as motivation for finishing with the NBA’s best record (52-20) and dispatching the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round. After appearing in four consecutive postseasons, however, the top-seeded Jazz enter their second-round matchup against the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers with bigger interests than making louder playoff noise.

“The goal is to continue to win, continue to get deeper into these playoffs and get to a championship,” Mitchell said. “Not being satisfied has been one of the biggest things with us. With a team like the Clippers, it’s going to be tough. It’s not going to be easy. But we have to understand that we have to be resilient.”

The Jazz showed mixed results last season with staying resilient.

Mitchell had friction with Jazz center Rudy Gobert after the two tested positive for COVID-19, and ultimately prompted the NBA to suspend the season last March. The two reconciled in time for the NBA season restart on a campus bubble last summer. Nonetheless, the Jazz experienced other internal challenges.

Jazz guard Mike Conley missed the team’s first two playoff games after leaving the campus bubble for the birth of his son. Jazz forward Bogdan Bogdanovic also missed the NBA season restart after having right wrist surgery. And the Nuggets appeared better equipped for a deeper playoff push amid breakout performances by Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and various role players.

“I really missed playing those big games in the playoffs,” Bogdanovic said. “Finally to have an opportunity to go deep is something special.”

The Jazz have that opportunity after channeling their frustration with their first-round exit the right way.

Before the 2020-21 season even started, Mitchell and Gobert signed five-year extensions. That signaled both the strength of their partnership and their trust in the Jazz’s organization to put the right pieces around them. Those pieces have already been in place.

Conley joined Mitchell and Gobert as All-Stars. Jordan Clarkson won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, and teammate Joe Ingles was also considered a candidate. In his seventh season, Quin Snyder might win the NBA’s Coach of the Year award.

The result?

Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, center left, reaches down to console Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45), on floor, after the Nuggets 80-78 win during an NBA first round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, Sept. 1,2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) ORG XMIT: TXTG188
Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, center left, reaches down to console Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45), on floor, after the Nuggets 80-78 win during an NBA first round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, Sept. 1,2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) ORG XMIT: TXTG188

Mitchell became one of only six NBA guards to average 25 points, five assists and four rebounds. Gobert led the NBA in defensive rating (100.6; points allowed per 100 possessions), blocks (2.7), field-goal percentage (67.5%) and plus-minus (+728; player’s on-court impact). Among reserves, Clarkson finished first in points per game (18.4) and total 3-pointers (203). And Snyder has overseen a team that set an NBA record for most 3-pointers in a season (1,205) and ranked third in total defense (107.2 points allowed per game).

Mitchell attributed those developments to what happened last year in the bubble. But the Jazz’s frustrating past also explains why they keep their promising present in the proper perspective.

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“It’s so fresh in our mind. We’re at a point that we don’t want to go back to that,” Mitchell said of last year’s first-round exit. “That helps. We understand we’re the best team in the NBA and there comes a swagger with that. But understanding we just felt a loss before, we don’t want to go back to that feeling just because we won a series. It’s not like the end-all. We’re the No. 1 team in the regular season. But at the end of the day, it’s like a high school kid that’s No. 1 ranked going into college. It doesn’t mean anything. With those rankings, everything starts over at 0-0.”

After all, the Jazz face a Clippers team that said it felt “battle tested” after surviving a seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks. That happened partly because of Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, whom Bogdanovic called “probably the best two-way player in the league.” Though the Clippers had little answer for Mavericks star Luka Doncic, they also relied on Paul George and a strong bench to ease Leonard’s workload.

The Jazz believe they are equipped to do the same thing. Though Mitchell said his right ankle “feels good” he’s “ready to go” after missing the Jazz’s Game 1 loss to Memphis, Conley can't say the same thing about his health. Conley participated only in parts of Monday’s practice after missing part of Game 5 because of right hamstring soreness.

“We’ve figured out how to play,” Bogdanovic said. “We know it’s not the same without Mike. We’ll need to make some adjustments. But it’s ‘next-man up.’ We have enough quality to overcome it, even if we really miss him if he doesn’t play.”

The Jazz could not say the same thing about themselves last year with absorbing injuries or handling adversity. Though they have the same team as last year, the Jazz have since changed their identity. Time will tell if that leads to more post-season transformation.

“We all felt the same hurt from last year,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just Rudy. It wasn’t just Mike or Joe. We all understood that, and we still carry that.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jazz believe they're a better team after last year's playoff collapse