How jazz star Donovan Mitchell decidedly chased Clippers’ worst defenders in a 45-point blast
If all superstars have one thing in common, it’s their flair for showmanship. It’s not enough to score points with someone. The best players in the NBA like to play with their food before they eat it, hammer the rock on the edge, and do the isolation dance before finally ending the defender’s misery with a sweater.
It is the most frustrating universal trait among elite ball handlers. They have worked hard to find their ideal matchup and yet they are unnecessarily settling for bad shots. This is LeBron James isolating Devin Booker in … a middle class jumper?
Stephen Curry didn’t bother attacking Jabari Parker on this move. Instead, he waited for Payton Pritchard to hop over to the double before throwing a 3-pointer.
The list goes on and on. Here’s James Harden beating the Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals.
Harden can stepback jumpers against anyone. James can whistle against minor defenders. These are superstars we’re talking about here. You can get positive results from almost any situation. But all they do is make their life harder. It thwarts the entire purpose of chasing a switch.
Ultimately, the goal is to find a usable matchup. Get a big one on the perimeter and any star ball handler worth their salt should be able to blow past them. Find a little guardian and you can bully him in the mail. The sooner you attack, the better. Every second you spend dribbling in place can use the defense to adjust to your advantage, switch, double up or top up zones, or whatever makes sense in that particular situation. Speed is defense’s worst enemy when switching.
This is in large part due to the confusion a switch creates. Even if it is done correctly, communication is required. Defenders need to process the move, so they can only do so as quickly as they can think through the decision. The gap between the decision to switch, the notification of that decision and its execution are windows that offensive players can use.
And that’s exactly what Donovan Mitchell did in his 45-point game against the Los Angeles Clippers when the Utah Jazz secured a 112-109 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Tuesday. Mitchell refused to give a weary defense a moment’s break in a dominant second half marked by crucial switch chase. Reggie Jackson was his first victim, and by the time he made it to Royce O’Neale, Mitchell had already separated him and Kawhi Leonard and was running to the basket for a layup.
In the third quarter, Mitchell joined Ivica Zubac for a while. The Clippers rarely ask him to move direct, but Mitchell is too good a middle-class shooter to aggressively dump Zubac. They’re trying to break up the difference here by getting Zubac on the 3-point line but letting him step back in color in hopes of taking the layup away. Mitchell counters by fooling Zubac with the fake pump.
But Mitchell saved his best work for a poor clipper. Almost every time during the fourth quarter, the Clippers started with Leonard chasing Mitchell. Those possessions inevitably ended with Mitchell finding and destroying Luke Kennard. Just like he did with Jackson, in this game he splits up the defenders before the switch is fully set to go downhill for a layup.
He manages to lull Kennard into a false sense of security in this piece before exploding another layup for him.
In an ideal world, Mitchell would attack every switch the way he does the first: even before it is locked. Basketball is rarely that easy, but even when Mitchell couldn’t attack as quickly as he wanted, he did it as decisively as possible. When he moves on this sweater, it’s quick and deadly: a transition to a stepback in one flowing movement.
The Clippers tried several alternative means of containing Mitchell. Leonard sees this screen coming and tries to deny it by twisting his body between Mitchell and O’Neale and approaching Mitchell. This is an overplay and Mitchell knows it so he turns to Leonard and manages to draw free throws.
Leonard and Kennard attempt to switch back to their optimal matchups after this screen, but Mitchell calmly sinks the jumper before they can. The whole sequence is so fast that we miss most of it with the camera zoomed in on Mitchell.
It was a precise, fatal dissection. The Clippers put poor defenders on the ground for the offensive, and Mitchell punished them mercilessly for not having time to send help or fix the defenses behind the disparity. It’s exactly how a star like Mitchell was supposed to attack to switch defenses, and it gave the Jazz a 1-0 lead over the Clippers.