THE ORLANDO BUBBLE feels like ancient history to Donovan Mitchell. Since his captivating scoring duel with Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray last August, Mitchell signed a maximum rookie extension for $163 million (and jumped into a pool fully clothed to celebrate), lost his grandmother to a stroke and huddled with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss social justice issues. But as he charged toward the postseason with the mission to prove Bubble Ball was no fluke, Mitchell suffered an ankle injury on April 16 that sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season and left him in an all-too-familiar limbo.
During his recovery, as he wrestled with the inevitable frustration and uncertainty, Mitchell found himself harkening back to the disciplines he developed during the pandemic, which were to dissect and correct his weaknesses through the rigors of film study.
"Bubble mentality," Mitchell says. "It worked."
Yet his grand return hit a snag in the hours leading up to Game 1 of the Utah Jazz's opening-round playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies. Mitchell's name had been removed from the injury list prior to tipoff, but a precautionary, last-minute decision by the Jazz medical staff kept him from playing. Sources confirmed the move was at odds with Mitchell's personal training staff, leaving the young guard fuming on the sidelines.
"I feel like I let [my team] down in a sense, when you're not there to play in a playoff game," Mitchell said on May 24. "And that probably hurts me more than anything else. It eats me. I barely slept because I think about that stuff."
Three days later, the star guard was back in the lineup for Game 2, scoring 25 points in 25 minutes and leading his team to a 141-129 victory. The mere presence of Mitchell on the floor instantly solved Utah's spacing and shooting issues, whether he was driving and kicking, driving and finishing, or pulling up and knocking down treys.
After the game, Mitchell declared the flap from Game 1 behind him. Sources say some deft behind-the-scenes maneuvering by newly minted minority owner -- and Mitchell confidant -- Dwyane Wade played a role in mitigating the tension. It was just the latest instance in which the surefire Hall of Famer has helped guide the Jazz's rising superstar.
And while it's premature to discern whether the incident may have lingering effects, all parties agreed the most paramount topic was advancing to the next round in the West.
"In my four years, we've only won one playoff series," Mitchell says. "I tell people it runs through my head on a daily basis. We need to prove ourselves -- I need to prove myself -- in the playoffs."
IN MITCHELL'S BUBBLE scoring party last summer, his singular results -- including a staggering 57-point barrage in Game 1 of the first-round series -- were so spectacular, some people forget the Jazz actually blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets.
"The way we played, everyone felt like we won," Mitchell says. "But that loss was a catalyst to where we are now."
Jazz coach Quin Snyder knew following that gut-wrenching series loss to Denver that his team needed to tweak its approach. Although the Jazz had already relied on 3-point shooting and crisp ball movement, Snyder urged his players to hunt for open shots earlier in the shot clock, and to never pass them up, even if it was a pull-up 3-pointer. The quicker pace and freedom to launch paid dividends, as the Jazz averaged 16.7 3s a night -- a league record -- and posted the NBA's third-ranked offense en route to their league-best 52-20 record. Mitchell thrived as Utah's emerging star, but as the postseason approached, and he sat on the bench rehabbing his injured ankle, he turned to a familiar mentor. "I called D-Wade," Mitchell says, "to see what he sees.'"