Donovan Mitchell puts on show as Jazz defeat Knicks
When Madison Square Garden public address announcer Mike Walczewski scrolled through the pregame introductions for the Jazz, there were loud boos. Rudy Gobert was jeered and the other starters mostly were ignored until Donovan Mitchell was introduced — to the sort of cheers usually reserved for the hometown team.
In the third quarter, Mitchell sized up Julius Randle as he dribbled along the baseline, backing out for a step and then accelerating to the rim and soaring for a dunk. The crowd was impressed, responding with a mix of cheers and awe.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Mitchell spun by Alec Burks and took off for a dunk, with even high-flying Obi Toppin making the business decision to duck away.
And by the fourth quarter, with Mitchell en route to a 36-point, eight-rebound, six-assist night, the cheers for him were more vocal than they were for Randle, who struggled through a series of missed layups, fouls and turnovers.
After Toppin’s dunk moved the Knicks within four with 5:19 left, the Jazz responded with a 15-2 run in the next 4:01 on the way to a 108-93 victory.
Paired with Atlanta’s loss, the Knicks (30-41) remain five games out of the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with 11 games to play.
The Knicks’ frustration came to a boil as the final buzzer sounded, with a frustrated Randle repeatedly shoving Gobert as the Utah center tried to put an arm around him. Other players stepped between them, including Mitchell.
Maybe the cheers for Michell were because he’s a hometown kid, growing up in Elmsford, New York, a long jumper from the Knicks’ practice site in Greenburgh. Or maybe it’s because the fans, like the Knicks’ executives, are thinking wishfully that Mitchell will be in Knicks orange and blue soon.
When it was over, Mitchell did his on-court interview, gave away his jersey and posed for selfies. “It’s fun seeing friends and family, being able to do that,” he said. “But also understanding that we have a job to do. That’s where our focus was all day . . . It’s always a blessing to play here in front of my friends and family — people who have seen me play since I was 3, literally like watch me shoot on mini-hoops.’’
“Anybody is psyched to play at home,” said RJ Barrett (24 points). “But we can’t let him do that. I have to do a better job guarding him, especially when it’s a guy’s homecoming. We can’t let him do something like that.”
Knicks officials have whispered the desire to bring Mitchell to Madison Square Garden as a home arena. That could be the key part of a plan to restore the franchise to a contender status that hasn’t been a reality since he was a child.
Passed on in the 2017 NBA Draft by then-team president Phil Jackson in favor of Frank Ntilikina, then signing a max extension with the Jazz in November 2020 when the future was uncertain, with COVID stalling the NBA, Mitchell has become the sort of star that New York hungers to sell and also as elusive as any other star the franchise has pursued.
The success of the Jazz (45-26) makes it hard to imagine that Mitchell, as much as he may wonder about a return home and have connections throughout the Knicks’ front office and coaching staff, will want to take on the task of being the face of the franchise in what could be a difficult building task.
With three years and $98 million left on his contract, plus a player option for a fourth season, Mitchell is far from free agency. Trading for him would require the Knicks to hand over their best assets — begin with Barrett and start adding on draft picks and contracts, and you still will have a hard time creating an attractive package.
And even if the Knicks can structure a package in their desperate search for a star, it would decimate the roster around him.