GIF: TNT

Donovan Mitchell spent his first-ever playoff series incinerating both his defenders and every reasonable expectation for even the most precocious rookie. In pouring in 28.5 ppg on 46 percent shooting from the floor and 36 percent from three, Mitchell managed serious volume without loss of efficiency. The Thunder were powerless against this bounding and transparently fearless stringbean, and Mitchell’s brilliance and poise made it all look a lot more normal than it was. Anyway, that was last round.

Mitchell has since been stymied by a superior Rockets defense: In the second round he’s shot just 32 percent from the field and 24 percent from three while putting up 10 fewer points a game. None of his current tricks can take him past this Houston team. And yet, for a minute in last night’s Game 5, on a court that he shared with the regular season MVP, he looked like the best player for miles:

On three straight Jazz possessions, Mitchell:

  • spun left past one of the peskiest on-ball defenders in the league, leaned all the way past the help, and finished with the left-hand scoop (and-one);
  • blew by his man, continued right through the foul, leaned past one of the NBA’s best rim protectors to finish with the right-hand scoop (and-one);
  • double-crossovered that same man into oblivion to earn himself an almost open right-hand scoop.

That’s three explosive, unpredictable, joyful possessions—possessions that, beyond working beautifully as basketball plays, are something like the spiritual opposite of watching the Houston Rockets do their jobs. It’s isolation basketball with none of the deadened algorithmic feel. 

It is also, in microcosm, what makes Donovan Mitchell so enticing. At just 21 he is already one of the most creative finishers in the league, with a plethora of dribble moves giving way to a plethora of finishing options; his speed and length and improvisation are never so wedded to one trick that he can’t adapt to what he sees in the moment. And if he doesn’t have it already, Mitchell will soon be in possession of the finest scoop layup in the universe, Steph and Kyrie be damned. This particular series is effectively over, but these are the little minute-long sneak previews of an enticing future, for Mitchell and the league.

Rookies have flourished in these playoffs—Jayson Tatum is still in full flow, Mitchell and Ben Simmons until they were solved—and will be better for having played in these games. These visions of what’s next are all the more welcome as the Finals seem increasingly likely to deliver a stale rerun. (Just let a trilogy be.) Something very much like the recent past may well be in the NBA’s near future, but Donovan Mitchell and the rest will have something to say about what comes after that.