If all superstars have one thing in common, it's their sense of showmanship. Scoring on someone isn't enough. The NBA's best players like to play with their food before they eat it, pounding the rock on the perimeter and dancing the isolation dance before eventually ending the defender's misery with a jumper.
It's the single most frustrating universal trait among elite ball-handlers. They've worked hard to find their ideal matchup, and yet they wind up settling for poor shots unnecessarily. Here's LeBron James isolating Devin Booker into ... a mid-range jumper?
Harden can make stepback jumpers against anybody. James can draw whistles against smaller defenders. These are superstars we're talking about here. They can generate positive outcomes out of almost any situation. But all they're doing is making their lives more difficult. It defeats the entire purpose of hunting for a switch.
The goal, after all, is to find an exploitable matchup. Get a big on the perimeter and any star ball-handler worth his salt should be able to blow by him. Find a small guard and you can bully him in the post. The sooner you attack, the better. Every second spent dribbling in place is one the defense can use to adjust to your advantage, to scram-switch or double or zone up or whatever makes sense in that specific situation. Speed is a defense's worst enemy when switching.
That's due in large part to the confusion a switch generates. Even when done properly, it requires communication. Defenders need to process the switch, and can therefore do so only as quickly as they can think through the decision. The gap between the decision to switch, the communication of that decision and the execution of it are windows for offensive players to take advantage of.
And Donovan Mitchell did just that in his 45-point outing against the Los Angeles Clippers as the Utah Jazz secured a 112-109 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Tuesday. Mitchell refused to offer an exhausted defense even a moment's rest in a dominant second half marked by, you guessed it, decisive switch-hunting. Reggie Jackson was his first victim, and by the time he made it around Royce O'Neale, Mitchell had already split him and Kawhi Leonard and raced to the basket for a layup.
For a stretch in the third quarter, Mitchell started going at Ivica Zubac. The Clippers rarely ask him to switch outright, but Mitchell is too good of a mid-range shooter for them to let Zubac drop aggressively to the basket. They try to split the difference here by bringing Zubac out to the 3-point line, but having him back-pedal into the paint hoping to take away the layup. Mitchell counters by fooling Zubac with the pump fake.
But Mitchell saved his best work for one poor Clipper. Almost every time down the floor in the fourth quarter, the Clippers would start possessions with Leonard hounding Mitchell. Those possessions invariably ended with Mitchell finding and destroying Luke Kennard. Just as he did to Jackson, he splits the defenders on this play before the switch fully sets to get downhill for a layup.
He manages to lull Kennard into a false sense of security on this play before exploding past for him another layup.
In an ideal world, Mitchell would attack every switch the way he does the first: Before it's even completed. Basketball is rarely that simple, but even when Mitchell couldn't attack as immediately as he'd like, he did so as decisively as possible. When he makes his move on this jumper, it's quick and lethal: A crossover into a stepback in one fluid motion.
The Clippers tried several alternative means of containing Mitchell. Leonard sees this screen coming and tries to deny it by angling his body between Mitchell and O'Neale and getting up close to Mitchell. This is an overplay and Mitchell knows it, so he spins around Leonard and manages to draw free throws.
Leonard and Kennard try to switch back into their optimal matchups after this screen, but Mitchell calmly sinks the jumper before they can do so. The whole sequence takes place so quickly that we miss most of it with the camera zoomed in on Mitchell.
It was a precise, deadly dissection. The Clippers put poor defenders on the floor for the sake of offense and Mitchell punished them for it mercilessly, leaving them no time to send help or set the defense behind the mismatch. It's exactly how a star like Mitchell should be attacking switching defenses, and it gave the Jazz a 1-0 lead over the Clippers.