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Patrick Kinahan: Former Jazz All-Stars working wonders in playoffs



SALT LAKE CITY — Former Jazz players have dotted several playoff teams, highlighted by the two marquee stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

Gobert is, again, serving as the elite defensive anchor for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who established home-court advantage by stunning the defending champion Denver Nuggets in the first game of their Western Conference second-round series. Gobert traveled back to Minnesota for the birth of his first child and missed the second game, which the Timberwolves also won.

Mitchell is, again, dominating on the offensive end, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a hard-fought series win over the Orlando Magic in the opening round.

After pouring in 50 points in a Game 6 loss, Mitchell spearheaded a huge comeback by scoring 39 points in the series clincher to help the Cavs advance to play the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference.

Coincidentally, Minnesota and Cleveland each have three ex-Jazzmen on their rosters. Mike Conley, a fan favorite during his time in Utah, joins Gobert in the starting lineup. As he primarily has done through throughout his NBA career, Nickeil Alexander-Walker comes off the bench.

Georges Niang and Damian Jones each are reserves for Cleveland, as is Alec Burks for the New York Knicks. In the other Western Conference semifinals, Gordon Hayward (Oklahoma City) and Dante Exum (Dallas) are backups.

As part of a massive rebuild, the Jazz have fallen far short of making the playoffs the last two seasons. They likely will require a significant talent upgrade, which CEO Danny Ainge will attempt to accomplish this summer, to get there next season.

All the losing, even if it leads to a bright future, has taken a toll on the fan base. To their credit, the fans still pack the Delta Center each home game but trading away two multiple All-Stars in the prime of their careers has led to some questioning of management’s decisions.

The well-documented narrative is Ainge and Co. believed the Mitchell/Gobert combination, along with the remaining roster, wasn’t good enough to compete for the long-desired NBA championship. The two blockbuster trades involving both stars brought back some talent along with a slew of draft picks and more financial flexibility.

For many reasons, the bosses believed they had no choice but to trade off all the assets. On the list was — despite management’s repeated claims to the contrary — the inability of Gobert and Mitchell to get along with each other.

As he did when both were teammates, Gobert in complimenting his current situation appeared to take a shot at his time with the Jazz. Specifically, with his comments after the Game 1 win over Denver, it could have been directed at Mitchell.

“I’ve never been part of a group that understands each other, that cares about each other and wants to see each other shine,” the 11-year veteran said. “In this league, it’s not something you find very often.”

Bosom buddies, they weren’t.

Near the end of their time together with the Jazz, the three-time defensive player of the league went right at Mitchell in praising Suns guard Devin Booker. For his part, Mitchell didn’t retaliate publicly but his camp didn’t appreciate Gobert’s remarks.

“I’ve been watching him compared to, like, two years ago,” Gobert said of Booker. “Guys like that, they buy in and you can tell that they take pride in playing defense, stopping their man, doing whatever they can defensively to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture.”

Interestingly, Mitchell admitted his lapses on defense after the trade to Cleveland. His self-critique is perhaps another example of why Gobert, who has kept his home in Utah, has favored status over Mitchell among many Jazz fans.

“It’s not the ability,” Mitchell said of defensive weakness after changing uniforms. “I can play defense; I know that for a fact. I haven’t shown that and that is what I’m looking forward to doing here.”

This much they have in common: Minnesota and Cleveland, respectively, are getting the best of Gobert and Mitchell. This much is also true: It came too late for the Jazz.



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