Charlotte, N.C. • If he could just play in a vacuum, Donovan Mitchell would’ve been well worth the price of admission on Friday night.
The rookie did what he’s done so often this season: drill threes, penetrate into the lane, offer another sky-high alley-oop to remind the NBA that he would be a worthy competitor in the slam dunk contest next month during All Star Weekend.
But around Mitchell’s play, there was a basketball game. It was ugly, and it was forgettable. And the Jazz lost, 99-88, to a Charlotte Hornets team that came alive late at the Spectrum Center to a threadbare crowd.
In the end, even Mitchell lost steam — finishing his 35-point night by missing four of his last five shots and having four turnovers as the Jazz (17-25) finished their latest road trip 1-3. It was Utah’s 14th defeat in 18 games, and another setback in a playoff quest on the verge of sinking.
“On the defensive end, I thought we were fairly solid,” coach Quin Snyder said. “We just had a game where we didn’t shoot it well, obviously. I think we didn’t do a good enough job getting in the paint. … I thought that showed up when you’re not shooting well, that becomes something that’s really important. But we weren’t able to score.”
At least most weren’t able to score. Beyond Mitchell (10 for 20), who had the second-most points in a game in his career, the rest of the starting lineup looked worn down at the end of the four-game road trip long before the decisive quarter.
After leading the team in scoring in the win in Washington, Ricky Rubio was only 3 for 11 from the field. Thabo Sefolosha was productive in his third start in four games, but was lost in the third quarter with a knee sprain as he was bowled over on a Charlotte fast break. Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors were virtual nonentities on offense, finishing 3 for 10 from the field. Aside from Mitchell, Favors was the only starter who scored (on a dunk) in the fourth quarter, which finished a lopsided 25-16 for Charlotte.
The only other player to get rolling late on offense was Rodney Hood, who had nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. Royce O’Neale — who has surprised since clinching the last roster spot after training camp — also contributed early, and had his first double-double of his career
Like they had the last two games, the Jazz elected to put it in Mitchell’s hands, and initially it looked promising: He hit a deep 3-pointer to tie it at 85 with 51/2 minutes left.
But without a strong supporting cast around the rookie, the Hornets double- and triple-teamed Mitchell into oblivion. He coughed up the ball four times during the final 5:10 of play, which fed the final 14-3 Charlotte run.
Characteristically, Mitchell narrowed his focus in on those final five minutes rather than the previous 43.
“I turned the ball over four times,” he said. “They changed their coverages and I’ve been making those adjustments on the fly all year. And for some reason, I didn’t make them tonight.”
That’s not to say Mitchell didn’t give Charlotte and team owner Michael Jordan something to stew over after passing over him at No. 11 overall in last summer’s NBA draft.
The 6-foot-2 rookie started off hitting 10 of his first 16 shots, including five threes. There were a few memorable one-on-one scuffles with Kemba Walker, but after scoring 15 points in the first half, Walker cooled off in the second for a team-high 22. Mitchell, who had 22 at halftime, kept going.
The most memorable bucket of all was a twisting alley-oop dunk off a pass from Rubio in the second quarter. Among the witnesses sitting courtside were His Airness, in a tan pullover, and No. 11 pick Malik Monk, a healthy scratch from the game.
Mitchell said afterward that he told others pre-draft that Charlotte would take him, “but I’m happy where I’m at.” The Jazz are happy to have him — mistakes down the stretch aside.
“We try to not put a ceiling on him, one way or the other,” Snyder said. “From that standpoint, he continues to get better. He struggled late in a playmaking position. But he’s figuring things out.”
Charlotte goes on a 14-3 run in the final 5:10 to win.
Donovan Mitchell scores 35 points, the second-highest of his career
Royce O’Neale has his first career double-double, with 11 points, 10 rebounds.