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Jazz's Donovan Mitchell scores 38 in win vs. Rockets, returns to form

HOUSTON -- His slow start weighed heavily on Donovan Mitchell, the second-year Utah Jazz star guard who holds himself to high standards. He admitted that he was pressing, trying to be perfect.

"I was in my head," Mitchell told ESPN after busting out of his slump with a 38-point, seven-assist performance in Wednesday's 100-89 win over the Houston Rockets. "I didn't get much sleep."

Mitchell, who shot 34.4 percent and had more turnovers (10) than assists (nine) during Utah's 1-2 start, credited a couple teammates with helping him return to form. He went to dinner and watched extra film Tuesday night with Utah reserves Royce O'Neale and Ekpe Udoh, two of his best friends on the Jazz, who echoed the message of the coaches and other teammates to relax and focus on making the right reads.

The result was one of the best all-around performances in the young career of last season's Rookie of the Year runner-up. The 38 points marked the third-highest-scoring game of Mitchell's career. The seven assists matched his fourth-highest total.

"The past few games, I'd been struggling because I'd been kind of pressing the issue," Mitchell said. "I came into [Wednesday's game] with the mindset of just finding the open guy. That was really my biggest thing. Last year in the playoffs, there were games where I got too deep or too whatever, just kind of not making the right plays. To me, just being able to make the right reads early just allowed me to settle down and relax a little bit.

"I always put pressure on myself, whether it was last year at the beginning of the year or whatever, just to be perfect. Obviously, that's impossible."

Mitchell became the first rookie since Carmelo Anthony to lead a playoff team in scoring last season, when he averaged 20.5 points per game as the Jazz went 48-34 and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, surprising anyone who expected Utah to land in the lottery after the free-agency departure of All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward.

Mitchell acknowledged being aware of the hype about him exploding after his sensational rookie season, but he says the pressure he feels comes from within.

"He likes that pressure, but I don't think he needs that pressure," Jazz forward Joe Ingles said. "We don't need him to score 40 to win a game. ... I don't know if that pressure was something that he thought about coming into the year or after one or two games it was building, but we've tried to tell him just to do what he does.

"He's such a good kid. He works hard, plays hard, does all the right things. He doesn't need that pressure. We want him to stay aggressive and be aggressive but kind of do it in the flow of how we play."

Mitchell dominated against the Rockets by driving into the paint, responding to his teammates' encouragement to "attack downhill." He was 10-of-14 in the paint in the win.

But Mitchell was prouder of his passing than his scoring against the Rockets, particularly a couple of successful lob passes, a facet of the game that he focused on improving during offseason workouts. On several of his assists, Mitchell forced the Houston defense to collapse before finding an open teammate instead of forcing a shot in traffic.

"He's a guy that can make plays for other people as well," Utah coach Quin Snyder said. "You saw that tonight. He's going to have another bad game this year, but he's going to have a lot more good ones. He's going to get better throughout the course of the year, and we're not going to judge him by a good game or a bad game. We just want to keep seeing him get better, and that's what he's focusing on, too."

Mitchell certainly isn't satisfied after one spectacular performance. He offered an extensive self-critique after the win and emphasized the need to play well consistently.

"I took a few bad shots. That's where I'm at," said Mitchell, who was 14-of-25 from the floor and committed three turnovers. "I airballed a terrible one when I went too fast. I went too deep and turned the ball over in the fourth quarter. I missed two free throws. There was one time I came in and missed a layup on a Euro step. So those are what I'm looking at. If this was last year, maybe it'd kind of be like, 'Oh, this is cool.' But now it's like, 'You had the game. It's over with.' That's it. Now we've got to move on to the next one.

"If we lost, I'd be saying it's one game. I'm going to say the same thing now. It's one game. There's a lot more left. I could go back to my old ways next game, you know what I mean? But when you have teammates that believe in you, it allows you to play free and play loose."