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Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz are playing mind games with the LA Clippers

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz fans react as Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) scores his 27th point in the first half of the game, with a 3-point shot in the final seconds of the first half, in second round playoff action in game 2 between the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers, at Vivint Arena, on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

Donovan Mitchell knew what was required, and he knew what was coming.

Force and focus, and a storm.

Mind games.

Peering through victory’s glasses after the Jazz took the first contest in their intense playoff series against the Clippers, Mitchell didn’t want to talk much about his stellar performance or the Jazz’s win. In so many words, he said they did what they were supposed to do, they did their job. Again and again, he redirected questions toward something different — that he and his Jazz teammates had to get better in Thursday night’s Game 2 because, he figured, the Clippers would most certainly attempt to be.

He was bang-on correct.

They were and they did, on each side of that equation.

The Jazz went ahead to follow through and capitalize on his correctness to the reward of another win, this time by the count of 117-111.

And Mitchell indicated the same things after this victory, through the same lenses, that he mentioned after the initial one.

“Everybody’s elevated their game,” he said. “… There are definitely things I can do better.”

His coach, Quin Snyder, did likewise.

“Our guys are together,” he said. “We’re not going to be perfect. … There’s a bunch of things we can do better. …”

Better, better, better.

He specified, as examples, more attention paid to offensive rebounding, getting stops more regularly, making quicker adjustments against a new wrinkle — the Clippers’ zone, and limiting turnovers.

But then he added the nub and nut of the night.

“…We were mentally tough.”

That’s exactly what the Jazz were.

The question becomes, is it what they are?

The single thing, from a collection of many candidates, that stood out in this second game of a challenging playoff series was that aforementioned force and focus. Or more appropriately, that focus and force.

The Jazz conjured both, the one precipitating the other.

This is the way it is: Both of these teams are talented, perhaps leaning just a half-cup to one side’s advantage or another’s or — who knows — maybe they’re dead even, at least physically. The difference between them, night by night, is and will continue to be what’s between their inner-ears, between their inner-selves — collective self-belief, self-confidence and self-determination.

Remember, both of these teams have lingering memories in the dusty far reaches of their brains of collapses in the bubble some nine months ago. Who’s matriculated the most since that time? Who’s grown and graduated in matters of the mind?

That’s precisely the edge the Jazz had on Thursday night, etched and evidenced in the final numbers on the board, for a 2-zip lead now. They were stronger in their heads. They were stronger, even after second-half struggles, during what Magic Johnson used to call, “winning time.”

The Jazz built a comfortable lead, hitting 63 percent of their shots in the first half, a stretch in which Mitchell scored 27 points and Jordan Clarkson got 15. In total, they went for 37 and 24. They were all over the Clips, who were stumbling and bumbling. And why wouldn’t the visitors be?

Over that early span, Mitchell couldn’t miss. No, really. He could not miss. And the Jazz led, 66-53.

In the third quarter, the Clips did something new — they threw up a zone defense, which knocked the Jazz out of whack, their lead growing to 21 points in that period and then … shrinking. shrinking, shrinking sown to a negative-two midway through the fourth.

That’s right, the Clippers went on a 46-23 run, while the Jazz puzzled over and pieced together what was hitting them upside the head like a swinging socket wrench.

“They threw a bunch of looks at us,” Mitchell said.

Said Snyder: “We stopped getting stops. … We weren’t very efficient on offense.”

All true.

But what happened next goes back to the nub and the nut.

Snyder agreed: “It’s what we did after that that was really good, We took a punch …”

And they fought back, not just with brawn, but with a combo-pack of proper reading and recognizing of situations and making enough clutch plays, hitting enough clutch shots.

Bojan Bogdanovic — Snyder called him a “warrior” — made some biggies (16 points), Joe Ingles (19 points) and Royce O’Neale (eight points) dusted the net, Ingles had some sweet deliveries, Rudy Gobert (13 points, 20 boards) got a 3-point play, as the Jazz bumped, skidded, and surged through the final minutes — winning time.

“We understand how to handle these things,” said Mitchell. “We know exactly how these things work.”

Added Ingles: “It’s the beauty of our team … figuring out matchups and who’s on who and where we want to go at different times. Reading the situations. … Staying focused, staying locked in. We get better at things as time goes on.”

All told, they made better than 55 percent of their shots, better than 51 percent from deep.

It’s a curious thing that a rough-and-rugged pursuit, one that relies heavily on size and strength and stature and speed and sweat, like championship-level basketball can come down to what’s inside the mind, not just inside the body.

To fully understand and analyze this stuff, you’re required to have an advanced degree in psychology, not sports.

Calling Dr. Freud. Dr. Pavlov. Dr. Jung.

Sigmund and Ivan and Carl together couldn’t and wouldn’t have grasped all of this.

Either way, taken from what happened in Game 2, the Jazz had control of what was in their own heads, then lost it, then gained it back for the win, and, at varying times throughout, they were in the Clippers’ heads, too.

It could be that they still are.

On the other hand, the Clippers had reason for a measure of encouragement, too.

They came back from a huge deficit, they befuddled the Jazz temporarily, they got a rock-steady performance out of Reggie Jackson, who scored 29 points, and they were, as Paul George put it, “optimistic” about the games ahead.

Is optimism what a team grabs ahold of when desperation sets in? When it almost wins?

The Clippers are coming off a series with Dallas in which they trailed 2-zip, and they battled back to advance. But there’s also lingering doubt in their minds, and the minds of a whole lot of observers, about their inability last season to close out a 3-1 advantage over Denver.

Yeah, the Jazz know all about that, having held the same advantage over the same opponent in the bubble, and losing.

But they learned from that. They say they have and they’re acting and playing as though they have. They’ve now won six straight playoff games. Mitchell said there still will be rough patches, but, no matter, that education has stayed with them all season long, leading them to the set jaw, the mindset and the lead they have against the Clippers now.

Was there a celebration by the Jazz after Game 2?

Maybe for a short minute, but it didn’t seem like that in the postgame. Not in any significant way. Game 3 in L.A. was less than 48 hours away — and there was more study, more preparation, more cogitating, more ruminating and more remembering to do.

More games of the mind to play.

“We’ve just got to be ready,” Mitchell said.

“That’s who we are,” said Snyder.

Indeed. That’s who the Jazz are.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.

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