Last night, the Cleveland Cavaliers took on the Utah Jazz in what was probably the best game of the night. Not the highest scoring game of the night – that title went to the Golden State Warriors, who enjoyed a 141-129 shootout victory against the Memphis Grizzlies in which they already had 116 points on the board after three quarters. But probably the best competition, and the best spectacle.
Cleveland entered the game with LeBron James on a historic tear. In the 13 games of December prior to last night, James had averaged 27.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game, putting up Russell Westbrook’s numbers despite having Joe Johnson’s mileage, and it was his move to point guard that turned out a sluggish Cavaliers start and saw them win 18 out of 19 games. If this is not the best he has ever been, it nearly is.
LeBron, however, got rattled yesterday. After a strong first half, he picked up a technical foul in the third quarter after a brief moment of chippiness with Sefolosha, and was visibly frustrated for the rest of the quarter. A loud and hostile home crowd didn't help - however, when Dwyane Wade threw some uncharacteristically sloppy passes, and J.R. Smith threw some more-characteristically ambitious ones, James got upset at his team. He stopped tracking back, was talking to his team mates about what they did wrong, and was mentally out of the game.
Ultimately, LeBron, who had been excellent in the first half in building up a significant Cleveland lead, was subbed out with five minutes left in the third, and his team down 12. He wasn't helping.
That lead represented a 29 point turnaround for the Jazz, who played very well as a group to come back and win from such a one-sided beginning. Multiple Jazz players stepped up. Derrick Favors continued to prove he is by far and away a better player at the centre position, his soft hands and ability to finish from the mid-range and at the basket opening up the half court offence, scoring well and even including clutch free throws at the end of the game. Defensively, too, those same good hands came into effect, and Favors stepped up to the right spots at the right time.
Ricky Rubio was impressive throughout, aggressive in the half-court, pushing the ball, being unusually confident in his own scoring ability off the dribble, and crashing the glass, coming up only two assists shy of a triple-double. Mired in a down year for his new team, Rubio showed last night the player he can be, and may soon consistently be again. He was in command this game.
Particularly impressive was Sefolosha, Thabo's career has been built around being a long, intense and annoying defender of opposing star wings, combined with rebounding in traffic, leaking out in transition, cutting wherever possible and spotting up when he can. He performed this role somewhat perfectly yesterday, recording 10 points, 12 rebounds and 3 steals in his 31 minutes of play. And most importantly, he annoyed LeBron.
But regardless of all that, the takeaway from the game wasn't the appearance of Thabo, the re-emergence of Rubio, or the disappearance of James. Instead, last night represented an opportunity for Dwyane Wade to see first hand his replacement in this league - Jazz rookie guard Donovan Mitchell.
After impressing in summer league and preseason, Mitchell came into the regular season pressing way too hard. Trying to score with every catch, he scored 9.3 points per game in the month of October, but shot only 32.9% to do it, and had an offensive rating of a lowly 77. He was trying to impress, forcing the action, and actively damaging his team in the process.
Since then, Mitchell has continued to press hard. But now, with some experience and nuance under his belt, it is working. In December, Mitchell is averaging 23.1 points, 3.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, on a true shooting percentage of 61.1% and a usage rate of 29.6%. Those are superstar numbers from a player with all of 35 NBA games under his belt. And Mitchell is not just having a Ronald Murray-like streak out there. He is figuring out defences, breaking them down, and flying around the court doing a bit of everything.
Wade was complimentary about Mitchell even before the game, because Mitchell's performances are no longer news from him. Indeed, the first time these two teams met, Mitchell posted 26 points in a Cavaliers win, looking just as spry off the bounce as he did last night. This wasn't some freakish, anomalous, rogue break-out performance from someone who might soon disappear again.
Last night was merely the next logical step in a journey to stardom that is proceeding amazingly quickly.
With each passing game, Mitchell can be seen to grow on the court. The confidence and swagger from a rookie is rare and befitting of stardom, yet it is his ability to play a full all-around game that intrigues the most.
Mitchell really can already do it all. He is, self-evidently, extremely athletic, slightly undersized for the two-guard position that his future will be at but making up for that with speed, explosion and a willingness to throw himself into any obstacles he cannot shoot over. He is the rare two-guard you can routinely throw lobs for who can also handle the ball up top regularly, while also putting forth effort defensively. He is absolutely fearless. And, last night, we found out he can also be clutch.
Down the stretch of the game, Mitchell was calling for isolations, and scoring within them. He was driving and scoring, driving and dishing, raising up to shoot when needs be, and throwing himself after every rebound, deflection and loose ball. He also stepped it up on defence, drawing LeBron on key defensive possessions at the end of the game, bodying him up, sending him towards the help, and giving him nothing.
To nitpick Mitchell's game means to point out that there is still the occasional bad shot, wild pass, stripped handle. Those were still on show last night, and indeed most nights. But to do so is to overlook all that which he brings, and how much he can impact a game already.
Mitchell is on his way to becoming a superstar guard the likes of which we have very rarely seen.
The Cavaliers had no answer. They needed a Thabo of their own. They didn’t have one. They had J.R. Smith. Mitchell lit up Smith at any opportunity, and particularly lit up LeBron whenever the King found himself matched up against the Prince.
LeBron hasn't the speed to get low into his stance and keep up laterally with the true speedsters driving at him, nor the stamina to try more than a couple of times a game. Mitchell knew that, went for him, and came through.
Mitchell is out here already winning games with his athleticism, ability to create, unrelenting desire, way-ahead-of-the-curve poise and highlight plays. No one is ever a direct mirror image of anyone else, and Mitchell isn't going to be one of Wade (he already shoots better from outside, but almost no other guard in history has had Wade's help defence). But the comparison is increasingly valid, in terms of both style of play and level of play.
If Mitchell doesn't win Rookie of the Year, then it's only because we have other emerging stars and superstars elsewhere.
It's been quite the year.