Good offensive players are able to take what the defense gives them. They make the right reads in 2-on-1 situations. The “one more” pass in a swing situation. Those players are what I like to call “reactors.”
Dynamic players force the defense to give them what they want. They’re the catalysts instead of a cog in the machine. Everything they do is to force the defense into an unfavorable situation — and they have the gravity to pull it off.
Look at Golden State for example. Draymond Green is an elite reactor. He’s probably the best short-roll option in the NBA because of his vision and decision making. Stephen Curry, however, is a manipulator. He leverages the threat of his shooting and off-the-bounce juice to freak defenses into mistakes. This is why the Curry-Green pick-and-roll is one of the most unguardable tandems in the league.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell isn’t Curry, but his mental transformation from reactor to manipulator has come quicker than anyone could imagine. He’s taken the league by storm as a dynamic, three-level scorer. Buckets have come by the boatload for Mitchell, but his ability to force an opponent’s hand is well beyond his years.
Mitchell didn’t have his shot going on Wednesday night. He finished with 17 points on 6-of-21 shooting, including a 2-for-8 clip from three. However, the Jazz still pulled off a 116-108 victory over the Houston Rockets, with Mitchell’s fingertip all over the game. He led Utah with 11 assists and finished with the game’s best plus-minus (plus-13). Even as he struggled to score, he used his gravity to create opportunities for others.
Mitchell kicked things off with a dime to Derrick Favors:
Mitchell’s use of the hesitation dribble makes the possession. He knows Houston is primarily a switching team, but also knows they don’t mind mixing in hard hedges. The slight hesi gives Mitchell time to process Houston’s method on this particular pick-and-roll. The moment PJ Tucker steps up, Mitchell hits Favors with a pinpoint high-pass so he can finish before Capela can rotate over.
Next time down, Mitchell finds Gobert in similar fashion:
Mitchell can beat Ariza like a drum whenever he wants. He knows this, and so does Capela. Once Mitchell starts to gain an advantage, Capela steps up in an effort to thwart the drive. As Mitchell sees Capela nudge forward, he drifts right to fully occupy Capela as well as give Gobert time to rumble down the before tossing the lob.
This was one of many examples of questionable help from Houston, or a complete lack of it. For whatever reason, Tucker didn’t drop down to “tag” Gobert on the roll. It’s not like leaving Favors in the corner is a cardinal sin. It’d be a different story if, say, Joe Ingles was left open.
Well, speak of the devil.
Mitchell is able to get his shoulder inside of Ariza, forcing Capela to drop a little. To Ariza’s credit, he tracks the drive better than he did earlier, but Capela’s semi-commitment still forces Chris Paul to drop from the corner. Ingles relocates to the wing, a minor detail that head coach Quin Snyder has surely drilled into the team. Mitchell sees Paul drop in his peripheral, so he knows where the ball has to go. He delivers the goods without a glance. Ingles then beats Paul after a strong closeout, leading to the easy lay-in.
Here, we get another example of Mitchell forcing a rotation, but also a great example of Snyder’s “advantage basketball” in full force:
Mitchell switches it up this time, rejecting the screen with a left-to-right cross that leaves Ariza in the dust. From there, panic ensues. Tucker sells out from the weakside corner since Favors isn’t a three-point threat. Favors forces another rotation by hauling it on a baseline cut. Harden “has” to leave Ingles to take away the dump-off pass to Favors. Mitchell quickly finds Ingles for another triple.
This is a bad breakdown on Houston’s part. In hindsight, there appears to be other avenues to prevent this. Maybe Ariza and Capela could switch when the drive began. There was a slight window for Ariza and Paul to switch assignments. But that’s a lot to process in real time, even for four high-IQ defenders.
Mitchell’s 10th assist looked eerily similar:
Following a Harden bucket, Utah goes into a 1-2 high pick-and-roll. As Ariza jostles with Dante Exum, Mitchell catches Ariza (and Harden to a lesser degree) off guard with a hard drive to the right. A chain reaction soon follows.
Capela stunts at Mitchell, but doesn’t commit because he can’t leave Jae Crowder. Tucker leaves Gobert to stop the Mitchell drive. Eric Gordon leaves Ingles in the corner (because that’s proven to be a great idea) to pick up Gobert.
This was arguably Mitchell’s most impressive floor game of the season. On a night where the shots weren’t falling, Mitchell was still able to leverage the threat of a bucket to force death-or-exile situations. Mitchell’s ability to diagnose patterns and adjust on the fly is a rare trait for someone his age. The league should be very afraid of his rapid ascension to stardom. For now, though, the Rockets must go back to the drawing board.