‘Our mind is stuck on a championship’: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz not content with red-hot start

When TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal dismissed his game on national television, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell just rolled his eyes.

While he and his small-market team excel on the court, Mitchell  continues to say the Jazz deserve more respect.

And after flourishing the past four years as one of the NBA’s top guards, Mitchell has even suggested he deserves consideration to win the regular-season MVP award.

Yet, it seems clear that both Mitchell and those in the Jazz organization remain consumed with a different set of hardware.

“Our mind is stuck on a championship,” Mitchell said. “We’re not here to say, ‘Let’s just be in first and get the accolades that come with that.’ We’re trying to win the whole thing. That’s been the mindset of this team and this group.”

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Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell celebrates with Royce O'Neale (23) during the second half of their win over the Boston Celtics on Feb. 10. (Photo: Russell Isabella, USA TODAY Sports)

Safe to say that mindset has worked. The Jazz secured a 122-108 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday that featured elements that make Utah a championship-contending team.

Mitchell brought the scoring (36 points) and playmaking (nine assists). Joe Ingles brought his outside shooting (24 points on 5-of-11 shooting from 3-point range). Rudy Gobert threw down lobs, cleaned the glass (12 boards) and remained a rim protector (three blocks). Jordan Clarkson contributed as well (13 points).

Those shared contributions don’t just represent one box score, though. They explain why the Jazz (20-5) have the Western Conference’s best record in what is the organization’s best start in 19 years.  

The Jazz became the only team in the NBA to rank in the top five in both offensive rating (115.4) and defensive rating (107.0), which are the points scored and allowed for every 100 possessions. And Utah has led the league in rebounds (49.5) and ranked second in 3-point shooting (40.3%).

“It’s a group that isn’t concerned with our record or win streak,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Obviously we want to win. But I think the focus is really squarely on getting better. It’s a challenge to do that when you’re playing well. But there’s always room to improve.”

And the Jazz are about to find out how much room it has to improve. They just began an eight-game stretch that will feature matchups against several title contenders.

On Friday, the Jazz will face a Milwaukee Bucks team determined to advance deep in the playoffs with a more dominant Giannis Antetokounmpo and a better supporting cast. On Feb. 16, the Jazz will play a Philadelphia 76ers team eager to rectify last season’s struggles with a new elite coach (Doc Rivers) and stronger chemistry between their stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

On Feb. 17 and Feb. 19, the Jazz will compete against Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers. On Feb. 24, the Jazz face an L.A. Lakers team prepared to defend its NBA title with a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“We’re not going to put too much emphasis on it. It’s not like we’re saying this is a make-or-break stretch for us,” Mitchell said. “We’re not playing to be ready by February. We’re playing to be ready in April, May, June, July, whatever. That’s when we want to have our best product.”

Mitchell speaks from experience as the Jazz haven't delivered their best product in the postseason, having been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round each of the last two season.  Last season in the NBA bubble, Utah squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the opening round after a season in which Mitchell and Gobert admitted still having some tension from March, when Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19 and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspended the season.

“It definitely made us grow as a team,” Gobert said. “Every struggle and tough moment and life in general really helps you grow. I really felt like we came back this year with a purpose.”

Instead of making wholesale changes, the Jazz leaned on its continuity.

They signed Mitchell and Gobert to long-term max extensions. They re-signed Clarkson and they re-acquired forward Derrick Favors, who spent one season in New Orleans after nine with the Jazz.

The result? Mitchell has improved his decision making and aggressiveness. Gobert has become an NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate again. Ingles ranks third in the NBA in 3-point shooting (49.1%) and Clarkson ranks second in bench scoring (17.4 points per game).

“It’s just a really fun group to play with,” Ingles said. “We’ve been able to win in different ways.”

Can Utah win in different ways against the NBA’s best? The Jazz will soon find out.

“It’s only been 25 games,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got plenty more left. This is a great start. But at the end of the day, we’d rather be there at the end than starting out great.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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