NBA superstar’s mystery absence from playoffs

The eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies beat top-seeded Utah Jazz 112-109 in the opening game of their first-round playoff series by relying on hard-nosed physical defence to keep the Jazz off balance on offense much of the game.

Jazz superstar Donovan Mitchell was a late scratch from the lineup while rehabbing his sprained right ankle which left some of his teammates a little frustrated by the surprise omission and questioning those at the Jazz that made the call to keep him out.

He has not appeared in a game for the Jazz since April 16 but Mitchell told reporters he was ready to go for Game 1 following Utah’s shootaround on Sunday morning.

His status changed by the afternoon though, throwing his teammates a bit off balance mentally going into the game.

“It was a big surprise. I just don’t know… I try to stay out of all this because it’s just going to give me a headache,” Rudy Gobert said post-game.

“When you wake up [from a nap], you get ready for a game, and you find out that your star player is not going to play, it throws you off a little bit.”

“Obviously, that’s tough on our team when we’re expecting a guy like that back,” Mike Conley said.

“But we’ve played this season with the guys in and out the lineup all year so that’s no excuse on how we go out there and perform on a nightly basis, but definitely a game-changer when you know a guy of his caliber is not able to play.”

“Of course we miss him, especially in the playoffs. We all know how good he is,” said Bojan Bogdanovic.

“I mean, I don’t know what happened, honestly, with the decision for him and the medical staff to keep him out. You should ask him.”

Mitchell shared a somewhat cryptic message on his social media to explain his late omission: “Sorry y’all… I wish I could say more… I’ll be out there soon!”

Utah’s Australian product Joe Ingles had a quiet game with just 11 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists, leading some to criticise how he was used without Mitchell on the court.

The South Australian was in the thick of the action though as both teams got physical throughout the contest, at times getting unnecessarily scrappy.

Utah never found a rhythm from the perimeter, shooting just 12 of 47 from long distance. Defensively, the Jazz couldn’t stop Dillon Brooks for long stretches.

Brooks had 31 points and seven rebounds to lead the Grizzlies. He set a single-game franchise scoring record for a Memphis player making a playoff debut, surpassing the 24 points scored by Marc Gasol against San Antonio on April 17, 2011.

“He brings a lot of energy to the floor,” guard Ja Morant said. “As soon as we get here in the locker room, he’s already active and loud and carries it onto the floor for us during the game. We just continue to play off of him. I think everybody on this team gets a lot of energy from him, just seeing how active he is on the floor.”

Morant added 26 points. Jonas Valanciunas chipped in 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Kyle Anderson added 14 points.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 20 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Jazz. Conley had 22 points, 11 assists, and six rebounds. Rudy Gobert added 15 rebounds and 11 points, and Derrick Favors finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.

Bogdanovic hit five free throws in the final minute to help Utah cut Memphis’ lead to 110-109 with 6.4 seconds left.

Brooks made a layup at the other end, and Bogdanovic missed a 3-point try with 1.9 seconds left that would have forced overtime.

Ultimately, the Jazz never fully recovered from playing long stretches of sluggish offense and passive defense.

“We got a few moments when we were distracted, disconnected,” Gobert said. “Every time they score, they are talking, and we know that’s the way they like to play, so we can’t let that affect us.”

Utah cut a double-digit deficit to 60-59 following a layup by Bogdanovic. Then, Brooks took over. He scored 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the third quarter. Brooks capped off his scoring flurry with back-to-back baskets that extended the Grizzlies’ lead to 78-68.

Memphis led by as many as 17 points in the fourth, going up 94-77 on a jumper from Tyus Jones, before the Jazz rallied late.

“He’s our spirit leader,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said concerning Brooks’ performance. “His intensity just permeates throughout the entire team.”

Utah experienced a dry spell on offense through much of the first quarter. The Jazz made a single basket over a seven-minute stretch while committing six turnovers. The Jazz committed eight total turnovers in the quarter.

“Whether it was the offensive rebounds or the turnovers, they just had a lot more possessions than we did and that’s hard to overcome,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “I was happy with the fact that we fought and got back in the game there at the end. But I think we all know we need to play better. And we need to execute better.”

Memphis went ahead 17-14 on a three-point play by Dillon Brooks, but could not gain further ground against the Jazz defense.

The Grizzlies missed 14 straight shots over a seven-minute stretch spanning the first and second quarters. It opened the door for Utah’s 15-0 run, highlighted by back-to-back baskets by Gobert for a 29-17 lead.

Memphis answered with a 31-7 run, starting late in the second quarter, and went ahead 53-43 early in the third. Brooks and Morant combined for six baskets and 17 points to fuel the spurt.

“I don’t think they took us lightly,” Anderson said. “They threw some punches. We threw some punches. We went out and won the game.”

Game 2 of the series is on Wednesday.

For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!

pin up