NBA

Donovan Mitchell rises to the top while LeBron James heads into potentially his final game with Cleveland Cavaliers

Jay Asser 23:01 28/04/2018
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Donovan Mitchell glides to the hoop in Game 6.

The best player in the Utah JazzOklahoma City Thunder first-round series wasn’t the reigning MVP or an All-NBA swingman. It was a rookie guard who has continuously taken his game to new heights.

Donovan Mitchell went toe-to-toe with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Thunder and came out on top to send Oklahoma City home with a dominant closeout performance in Utah’s 96-91 Game 6 win.

The 21-year-old scored 38 points in 40 minutes – including 22 in the third quarter – to cap off a series in which he shined throughout, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 46.2 per cent shooting.

His 171 points through his first six career playoff games place him third all-time for rookies, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (216 in 1970) and Wilt Chamberlain (199 in 1960), while his Game 6 performance made him just the fourth rookie in history to score 35-plus in a series-clinching win, joining Chamberlain (53), Abdul-Jabbar (46) and Magic Johnson (42).

Mitchell may not end up earning Rookie of the Year honours – he had the misfortune of sharing his first year with Ben Simmons’ rookie campaign – but there’s no doubt he’s already arrived on the scene as a legitimate star.

In a series that featured one of the league’s brightest talents and human highlight reel in Westbrook, Mitchell got the last laugh and raised eyebrows with his own jaw-dropping crossovers and finishes.

And in Game 6, it took the Jazz phenom 17 fewer shots than the reigning MVP to score just five fewer points.

Considering Utah lost Gordon Hayward in free agency last summer and Mitchell has quickly developed to fill the role, this season can already be considered a wild success for the Jazz after they advanced past the first round.

But with Mitchell having proven he can be the best player in a series full of stars, Utah won’t be an easy out when they meet the high-powered Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals, beginning with Game 1 on Sunday.

Must-win in more ways than one

Life could come at the Cleveland Cavaliers really fast if they fall in the do-or-die Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday.

It seems crazy we’re already at this point, but this may be the final game LeBron James plays in a Cavaliers uniform, with a decision looming in the summer if he predictably opts out of the final year of his contract.

Which is why there’s much more on the line in Game 7 than just Cleveland’s hopes of a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

What’s obvious is the Cavaliers don’t have the firepower to convincingly compete for a title this season, even if they do get back to the Finals. But how far they go could potentially weigh heavily on James’ mind when he considers whether to stay or leave again.

LeBron

Going out in the first round would be a disastrous result, even for a Cavaliers team that is lacking in talent and has clear deficiencies.

The expectation all season long, even during their struggles with the first iteration of the roster and after their moves at the trade deadline, was to be a contender in the East and get at least as far as the conference finals.

No one could have seen a first-round elimination coming, simply because James hasn’t lost in the opening round ever in his career.

As he faces that possibility, James claims he isn’t even thinking of Game 7 potentially being his final appearance on the court as a member of the Cavaliers.

James said: “The thought of, ‘If we don’t play well it will be my last game of the year,’ that will probably hit my mind, but I haven’t thought about that.”

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