SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell walked out onto the court an hour before tip-off for the pregame shootaround Wednesday and made his first eight shots. It’s his first game back in 40 days after suffering an ankle injury, and he's someone the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz needed back for Game 2 after falling to No. 8 seed Memphis on Sunday.
“We’ve got s*** to handle,” Mitchell said after the loss.
Nothing went right for the Jazz during Game 1 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series. A team that shot 43% from 3-point range during the season shot only 25% (12-for-37) on Sunday night. Defensively, the Jazz struggled to find an answer for Memphis guard Dillon Brooks, who had 31 points and found ways to score at every level. Mitchell was visibly frustrated on the bench Sunday night and was eager to return to the court for Game 2.
"The biggest thing is I felt like I should have played," Mitchell said. "At the end of the day, the experts said no. We can disagree on those things, but that was the frustration.”
The Jazz finished the regular season in first place and received the No. 1 seed in the West for the first time in franchise history, despite not having Mitchell for the final 16 regular-season games.
Mitchell’s return to the court was met by 14,200 cheering fans at Vivint Arena. The 6-foot-1 shooting guard hit his first shot (a 3-pointer) two minutes into the game as the entire arena erupted and fans jumped to their feet.
The heart and soul of this Jazz team has returned. Mitchell did it all on the court Wednesday evening in the Jazz's 141-129 win. There were no signs of rust to his game. He hit five 3-pointers, had some incredible scoops around the basket and finished with 25 points in only 26 minutes. Mitchell was subbed out of the game with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter and received a standing ovation.
“I feel great. It’s good to be back out here,” Mitchell said. “It’s been about five weeks and there’s only so much you can do in training to get back to game shape, let alone playoffs, but I feel good. I’m just trying to find ways to impact the game whether it’s getting a steal late in the game or taking the charge. Anyway I can impact the game with my minutes is the biggest thing for me coming back.”
The team with the best record in the NBA fell into a comfortable rhythm early on with Mitchell posting 12 points in the first quarter and forcing Brooks to sit early after drawing two quick fouls.
The Jazz had a 20-point lead at halftime and rallied late in the third quarter as Ja Morant and the Grizzlies cut it to two points. Morant hit another level in the second half and finished with 47 points and seven assists. Mitchell helped extend the lead to 13 points after an and-one early in the fourth quarter that drew “MVP!” chants from the crowd.
“Having Donovan back takes pressure off everyone,” head coach Quin Snyder said.
The Jazz looked like the team that won 11 straight games earlier this season. Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner Rudy Gobert met Morant at the rim for an unbelievable block. Jordan Clarkson, who was named the Sixth Man of the Year this week, received a standing ovation before tip-off and contributed 16 points off the bench.
The Grizzlies struggled to guard the high pick-and-roll offense with Mike Conley dishing out 15 assists. The Jazz set a franchise record, hitting 19 3-pointers, and outrebounded the Grizzlies 42-33. The energy was completely different with Mitchell back on the floor.
“It’s good to have him back,” Snyder said. “He certainly changes our team. If you take a player like that off any team, it’s going to impact you. There’s a competitive spirit that he has and you can feel it when he plays, and it’s something our guys feed off of.”
Donovan Mitchell is back. Game 1 is a distant memory. Could the Jazz have swept the series with Mitchell playing in the first game? Possibly. But it’s now one game at a time as Utah looks to advance deep into the postseason.
“They came in here and stole one from us, so it’s time now to go there and take care of business,” Mitchell said. “The biggest thing for us is just keeping our foot on the gas and keep fighting.”
The Jazz will travel to Memphis for Game 3 on Saturday night with the series tied 1-1.
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