Opening weekend of the 2021 NBA Playoffs produced several upsets. The No. 5 seed Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks both upset their No. 4 seed opponents, and the No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers took out the No. 3 Denver Nuggets.
The biggest upset came from the last game of the weekend when the No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies took out the No. 1 Utah Jazz.
Without superstar Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz struggled to keep up with the Grizzlies’ torrid scoring pace. If Mitchell can’t find a way to get back soon, Ja Morant and company could find their way into a small, historic group that pulled off the unthinkable.
Donovan Mitchell missed Game 1 of the Jazz’s first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies
Mitchell is the Utah Jazz’s unquestioned star. He led the team in points (26.4), field goals (9.0), 3-pointers (3.4), and usage rate (33.5) and was second in PER (21.3), steals (1.0), and assists per game (5.2).
The 6’1” guard sat out Game 1 against the Grizzlies Sunday with a nagging ankle injury. Missing his 17th consecutive game came as a shock to most Jazz fans and maybe even the player himself. Before the tip, Mitchell told The Salt Lake Tribune, “I’m ready to go tonight, no pain. I’m excited to get going.”
After shootaround, the local paper also reported that Mitchell did not aggravate the injured ankle. The Utah training staff just decided it was best to keep the star out for another game.
The Utah Jazz lost Game 1 to the Memphis Grizzlies
The No. 1 seed always gets to play the No. 8 seed in the first round of the playoffs. However, this year, the No. 8 seed is actually the No. 9 team in the West. This happened for the first time in NBA history thanks to the Grizzlies upsetting the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Play-In Tournament.
Mitchell’s absence hurt the Jazz and buoyed the Grizzlies, who took a 1-0 series lead after a 112-109 win in Utah. Following a slow start in the first quarter, Memphis turned it on for the rest of the game behind 31 points from Dillon Brooks and 26 from Morant.
The Jazz suffered during crucial stretches of the game for not having their go-to scorer. Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley picked up some of the slack with 29 and 22, respectively, but Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles had poor shooting nights, and Rudy Gobert only played 25 minutes with foul trouble.
Despite its struggles, Utah still had a chance to send the game to overtime. Bogdanovic couldn’t sink a deep, contested 3-pointer, though.
If Mitchell played, he would be the shooter there, and who knows what might have happened. What we do know is the longer Mitchell sits out, the better the Grizzlies’ chances become.
No. 8 over No. 1 upsets in the NBA Playoffs are rare but have happened
If the Grizzlies can pull off the No. 8 over No. 1 upset, they wouldn’t be the first but would be one of the few teams to do it.
The first and most iconic upset came in 1994. Dikembe Mutombo and the Nuggets took out Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp’s No. 1 Seattle Supersonics in a then-five-game first-round series. The visual of Mutombo lying on the court, clutching the ball, and crying tears of joy following the final win is one of the most memorable videos in NBA history.
Coach Jeff Van Gundy’s New York Knicks also knocked off his mentor Pat Riley’s Miami Heat in 1999, the “We Believe” Warriors defeated Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks in 2007, and the Philadelphia 76ers took out the No. 1 Chicago Bulls after Derrick Rose suffered a career-altering knee injury in 2012.
If the Grizzlies can pull off this feat, whether Mitchell is in the lineup or not, they would become the first franchise to ever pull off this type of upset twice. In 2011, with Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan hobbled by injuries, the “Grit and Grind Grizzlies” bullied the favored San Antonio Spurs and took the series in seven games.
If Mitchell can return and give the Jazz even a decent approximation of his full self, that should be enough to propel the team to the second round. If not, the Jazz may help make NBA history that they want no part of.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference