SALT LAKE CITY — The night was supposed to be about Donovan Mitchell. Someone forgot to tell the Utah Jazz.
In Mitchell’s first game in Utah following a landscape-shifting September trade that marked new eras for the Jazz and Cavaliers and ended Mitchell’s five-year Jazz career, Utah rallied late in the fourth quarter to stun the Cavs, 116-114. It’s Cleveland’s second loss on this road trip.
“I was really comfortable,” Mitchell said when asked about his emotions. “I’m not gonna lie to you. It wasn’t weird. It wasn’t anything. I was just like, I’m playing at home like I have been for the past five years. The reception was phenomenal. I appreciate it from everyone. The tribute video was great. But it felt like just the typical Jazz night, back and forth, screaming yelling, it was awesome. It’s good to be back. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the dub, but I gotta give them credit. They fought hard and competed to the end.”
With less than two minutes remaining, it seemed like Tuesday was going to be a Mitchell coronation. A homecoming storybook.
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But then came the improbable. Cleveland was up by five points when Jordan Clarkson — the former Cavalier and first Utah player to greet Mitchell when he stepped on the floor Tuesday night — buried a 3-pointer while being fouled by Caris LeVert. Not only did the basket count, but a review upgraded the personal foul to flagrant because of a dangerous closeout. That gave Clarkson a free throw and a four-point play. The Jazz retained possession.
With the Cleveland lead just one, Clarkson hoisted another triple while being fouled from behind — again by LeVert. Even though Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff challenged the call, it was upheld via replay. Clarkson got a trio of freebies and drilled all of them. Utah scored seven points in 13 seconds — all without giving possession to Cleveland.
“Feel like they were bad calls,” LeVert said after the loss. “First one was a push off and then he kicked his legs. Second one, he kind of jumped backwards. Regardless of that, I have to expect the ref to make a bad call and just be that much better defensively. I will be. That’s on me. Sucks the game had to end that way. But that’s on me. I take that on me.”
By the end of that wild sequence, the Jazz were suddenly ahead by two. The Cavs didn’t get any closer. Utah spoiled Mitchell’s long-awaited return.
Following a touching pregame video tribute that preceded booming starting lineup introductions, Mitchell was welcomed back with open — and loving — arms. There’s still plenty of appreciation for Mitchell, who began his career in Utah and became a three-time All-Star while leading the franchise to the playoffs every season.
Fans in Salt Lake City waited four months for a chance to salute him. They made it count. And even in a loss, Mitchell put on a show.
He finished with a game-high 46 points on 14 of 27 from the field, 7 of 18 from 3-point range and 11 of 11 from the free-throw line to go with six assists and five rebounds in 36 sparkling minutes.
He nearly punctuated his return with the kind of flurry Utah fans have witnessed countless times.
With under nine minutes remaining, the Cavs were down by three points. It was Mitchell time.
Cleveland’s newest star buried a 13-foot jumper to cut the lead to one. Then came a defender-splitting transition layup to give the Cavs their first lead since the opening minutes of the third quarter. He capped a vintage 10-0 run with back-to-back silencing triples. Just like that, the Cavs were ahead by seven — their largest lead of the game. It looked like a dagger. The fitting close to a special night.
Only the Cavs could not finish the emotionally charged game.
Mitchell scored 17 of his 46 in the fourth quarter. Darius Garland chipped in with 21 points. LeVert had 12 off the bench. Lamar Stevens tallied 11.
The Cavs played most of the game without All-Star center Jarrett Allen who logged just seven minutes because of an illness that kept him in the locker room for the final three quarters. After the game, Bickerstaff said Allen was nauseous and throwing up, believing it was something he ate. Isaac Okoro also felt sick, but he was able to gut through, finishing with four points in 18 minutes.
That put more of the burden on Mitchell, the night’s main attraction.
“He was Donovan,” Bickerstaff said. “He was trying to get us through it. I just think there were some plays that we missed, there were too many second chance points, the ball is in our hands, rebounds that we couldn’t corral. Then you can’t have empty possessions at the end of the game and I thought we had too many of those as well.”
Clarkson led the way for the Jazz. He poured in 15 of his team-high 32 in the fourth, fueling a 13-0 Jazz push near the end that helped them overcome a brutal fourth-quarter start, missing 13 of their first 14 points to open the fourth.
“He had that look in his eye and I was just like, ‘Damn, you know, it’s gonna be one of those back and forth nights,'” Mitchell said of his old teammate.
Utah also got 25 points from former Cavaliers swingman Lauri Markkanen — Utah’s centerpiece acquisition in the Mitchell blockbuster.
Prior to the game, there were some questions about the kind of reception Mitchell would receive. Bickerstaff pointed to the unpredictable nature of fans, wondering if that would lead to a smattering of boos.
There were no boos. Only deafening roars. Even when Mitchell walked off the court.
Just like old times.
The Cavs will make their next stop on this five-game road trip, with a matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night. Tipoff is set for 10 pm
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