CLEVELAND – As Donovan Mitchell took the floor to go through his pregame routine, Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson was in the corner shooting 3s as part of his warmup. Mitchell passed a ball to Clarkson as he ran toward the corner, then hugged his former teammate from behind, and both had broad smiles on their face.
Mitchell hadn’t seen Clarkson in person recently, just over FaceTime. Mitchell still has the same group chat with some of his former teammates. Mitchell also caught up with Mike Conley and some of the Jazz training staff and hugged head coach Will Hardy following the Cavs’ 122-99 win over Utah.
“It’s great to see my guys, man,” Mitchell said. “That’s the great thing about basketball and then these things, like obviously the business part of it is the business part, but the friendships last forever. The stuff that we went through as a group … like there’s so many different guys, the training staff, like everybody just being able to see guys and just show love.”
“At the end of the day, we’re competing, but it’s always bigger than basketball,” Mitchell continued. “You’re with these guys more than you’re with your family. So like I said: it’s always smiles. It’s always love to see those guys, and it was weird, but it was fun.”
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Monday night was the first time Mitchell faced his former team, the Utah Jazz, this season, following the blockbuster trade in September. In this first game, he scored 11 points in the first six minutes of the first quarter, trying to set the tone for the Cavs early. Mitchell finished with 23 points in 22 minutes of play through three quarters, shooting 8 of 12 from the field and 4 of 5 from 3. He also dished out one assist and grabbed two rebounds.
He found his shots on the perimeter, wove his way through the Jazz’ defense and to the rim for layups, threw lobs and facilitated for his teammates. Mitchell didn’t play in the fourth quarter after the Cavs extended their lead, allowing him and Darius Garland to rest.
There have been moments throughout the season where the reality of the trade has sunk in for Mitchell. His first home game in Cleveland and hearing his name announced. When the Cavs went to New York and faced the Knicks or played against Utah. When the Cavs played Dallas twice last week. There are other looming events, like when the Cavs travel to play in Utah in early January. Or, if Mitchell is named an All-Star, heading back to Salt Lake City for All-Star weekend.
“And that’s one thing I’ve learned from just the past few years,” Mitchell said. “Just understanding and appreciating the little moments in this 82-game season; otherwise, it can become monotonous, the same over and over again, so understanding and appreciate and feel it. Don’t ignore your feelings. Feel them and enjoy them.”
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Mitchell processed those emotions by riding them out throughout the day. He saw messages on Twitter, Instagram, or text messages. He allowed himself to feel those emotions and embrace them. Then, once he woke up from a nap and got into his car to head to the game, he refocused and continued his routine.
“I learned from before, you try to run from your emotion; it’s continuously in your mind, like, don’t think about it, don’t think about it,” Mitchell said. “Why are you doing it? Why are you thinking about it?’ Like, enjoy it. Let your mind run wild, let it run wild in shootaround, let it run wild when you get home, take your nap, do whatever. But once you get in the car, once you get ready to go, then it’s time to lock in.”
“The emotions are all over the place,” Mitchell said. “We had a great time in Utah. We did so much as a group. It will be weird seeing those guys on the other side. Then on the flip side, it’s like, man, I want to kick their ass today. So many flowing emotions. But you kind of need to harness those when it’s time to play, and that’s what we were able to do tonight.”
Jarrett Allen was talking with Mitchell before the game, and while Mitchell recognized he was playing his old team, he was trying not to make it a big deal. He wasn’t trying to make it a revenge game, Allen said. Mitchell tried to pass on the message to his teammates: “to keep the main thing the main thing.” Allen said Mitchell was in a stable mindset and watched how Mitchell went out to play his game, proving why he helps the Cavs win games.
After the first two games this season against the Knicks, Mitchell felt like the talk surrounding him crept in too much — especially in New York, when they didn’t play the way they should have. He, and his teammates, are learning how to navigate the talk around these games.
Even so, his teammates recognized the emotions behind Monday’s game. It’s partly how they played a more complete game, where guys throughout the rotation played with a purpose and together. They had seven different players score in double figures.
“I mean, we always got his back,” Cedi Osman said. “I’ve been saying this for a long time now, he’s our leader, and we knew how much he wanted this win, so that’s why I think that we played our best game tonight.”
Mitchell found a way to fit in with the Cavs from the get-go seamlessly. He approached his new situation, coming to a new team in September, by trying to be himself. Nothing extra or trying to overdo anything. He’s comfortable in Cleveland — even though he joked he’s still trying to figure out the highways.
Earlier Monday afternoon Mitchell was also named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his play during Week 9. In that stretch, Mitchell helped the Cavs to a win over the Indiana Pacers, as well as two wins against the Dallas Mavericks.
Coach JB Bickerstaff knows how much Mitchell is capable of out on the floor. Not only is he an elite scorer, but it’s the timing with which he makes shots and plays. Mitchell has taken over in late-game situations, fourth quarters, or overtime periods where he’s scored the necessary baskets. On top of his scoring, though, Mitchell can play a complete game. Bickerstaff was able to use Mitchell in the point guard role when Garland was dealing with the eye injury, and Mitchell knew how to facilitate, find his teammates and organize the offense.
Mitchell has also grown as a vocal leader. He’s talking more in timeouts than he feels he has in his career. He’s focused on his defensive effort and holding himself accountable on that end of the floor and his teammates.
Yet, Bickerstaff wants people to know Mitchell as more than just a basketball player.
“I would love people to understand what type of human being he is,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s an unbelievable person to be around every day. Ups, downs, roundabouts, 8-game winning streak, 5-game losing streak, he never changed. And he was always uplifting, he was always positive, and he’s always thinking about other people first, and to me, that’s more important than all this putting the ball in a basket stuff. Because those are the types of people you want to surround yourself with, and those are the types of people, and you see it, his teammates want to play with him and play for him because he’s that type of person.”
As Mitchell sat in his postgame news conference, his sister, Jordan, and his mother, Nicole, were towards the back of the room. In true older brother fashion, Mitchell gave his sister a shoutout at the start of his news conference, saying she was named All-Patriot League second-team in lacrosse at American University.
When asked how where his positive approach originated, Mitchell pointed to his mom.
“The one thing is always just be yourself,” Mitchell said. “I can confidently say the three of us — my mom, my sister, and I, even my dad — we didn’t think this was going to happen. If anything, we thought it was going to be the baseball side of it. Never change.
“Just continue to be this person, a humble person, and continue to go out of your way and be nice and kind,” Mitchell continued. “Kindness is easy, and it’s free. Not hard to be kind. Just continue to be a selfless person. That’s how I’ve always been raised. … Certain moments and certain people, like my mother, they shape you to be who you are, and I’m very thankful, and I’m going to continue to be this person. Something I take pride in.”
(Top photo of Donovan Mitchell with Jazz center Udoka Azubuike after Monday’s game: Nick Cammett / Associated Press)