HOUSTON -- Isolated at the top of the key, Donovan Mitchell settled into a defensive squat with the expected MVP lining him up with crossovers and between-the-legs moves. James Harden rocked back-and-forth, his beard bobbing up and down, and sensing Mitchell leaning ever so slightly, he started a hard drive left, and Mitchell reached. Maybe it was self-preservation so as not to get roasted, but it smelled of a rookie rookie-ing -- losing discipline in only the briefest of moments -- and it cost him his fourth foul with 6:40 to go.
The Rockets inbounded the ball from the sideline and went right back to Harden, who forced another switch on Mitchell. The rookie squatted into his stance, holding his arms almost comically to his sides, shuffling against the grain as Harden tried to drive him. Mitchell cut off the move, and Harden backed out and Mitchell closed the gap. Shot clock violation.
On the Jazz's next trip, Mitchell -- struggling through an ugly shooting night -- missed a floater in the paint, but with a second jump as if a hidden trampoline existed somewhere under the floor, he exploded back at the rim and crammed home a vicious tip dunk. After a Harden runner cut Utah's lead back to four, Mitchell came right back, gliding into the paint after a high screen, and calmly hit Joe Ingles right in his pocket for a wide-open corner 3 to put the Jazz up seven.
It was a sequence of consequence, and another to highlight Mitchell's outrageous poise and ability. The tip dunk was the highlight of the game, and even had a great quote to go with it ("I just happened to be up there," Mitchell said, "so I figured why come down with it?"), but the entire series of plays showcased what makes Mitchell so special. He didn't play all that well, at least in the traditional box score sense -- 17 points on 6-of-21 shooting -- but he made plays, and taking over the primary playmaking role again, he dished out a career-high 11 assists to even the Western Conference semifinal series at 1 with a 116-108 win on Wednesday night.
"I've learned not to be content with him, to demand more and more from him," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said pregame, "because that's what he wants."
It was all about closing from there, and with Mitchell handling the offense, Ingles shooting his face off (27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, 7-of-9 from 3) and some timely bench production, the Jazz responded after their lackluster Game 1 performance. The Rockets looked confused in the second half, with Harden struggling in the fourth quarter and Houston's drive-and-kick action stymied.
The Jazz had built a sizable lead in the first half, but Mitchell picked up his third foul with about four minutes left in the second quarter on an unfortunate collision under the basket. From that point, it was about getting to halftime for the Jazz, holding off the inevitable Houston flurry, in whatever form it might take. It came as it often does, Harden scoring in his ways -- free throws, 3s and layups. In the final 6½ minutes, Harden scored as many points on free throws as the Jazz did total. It cut a 19-point Jazz lead to nine at the break, and while not completely unraveling an otherwise excellent half, it certainly clouded the third quarter.
Once the Rockets -- or really, Harden -- got settled, it got complicated for Utah. The ball was moving on them, and the offense was surviving only on tough jumpers. But after Harden picked up his fourth foul midway through the quarter, Utah swung back again, and actually held a one-point lead going into the fourth. The Jazz got critical production from Alec Burks (17 points) and Dante Exum (9 points) to stabilize after Houston's run.
But they could hold on only so long, because eventually Harden was coming back into the game. Straight away, after another Utah turnover, the Rockets popped the ball around the perimeter in mid-transition, with it finding Harden at the top of the key wide-open. He gripped the ball at his side as if he were about to launch, but as a defender pulled over to contest, Harden skipped it over to Eric Gordon for 3. Crisp, simple, pretty -- and the Rockets had the lead again. Even with virtually a whole quarter to go, it felt as if the Jazz were in trouble.
"You know that they're going to come back, it's just a question of how far and how quickly, and I thought when they cut that gap, they not only made it a game but basically took control," Snyder said. "I think we could feel that.
"But at that point for our guys, to keep their focus on what we're trying to do says a lot about the team and how they function together that they didn't break at that point."
There's a toughness to the Jazz, both physically and mentally. The tried to irritate Harden, with Harden even getting a little irritated postgame about a question about being irritated ("I look like that all the time," he said. "I think it's the beard.") They took some hard fouls, pressured the ball and dug in. On a tie-up with known bulldog PJ Tucker, Mitchell wrestled for the ball an awkward amount of time, not backing down a bit as the two grappled for it. Finally the ball spun out for a jump ball as the teams came together and the refs separated everyone. Tucker clapped and barked; Mitchell stood his ground. It was emblematic of the Jazz's approach, and specifically, Mitchell's. The fearlessness is real, and impressive.
Maybe it's not coincidence that Mitchell turned in a rugged performance after watching Kobe Bryant's "Detail" breakdown of him -- twice. He has gotten raves from everyone around the league for his beyond-his-years play and composure, but the competitive spirit and will to perform in big spots is a talent he's only starting to scratch the surface on.