Earl Watson’s finish just might be the start of something for the Jazz.
In the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s 108-98 victory over Minnesota at EnergySolutions Arena, the veteran point guard was everything this young team needs to become: tough, poised, aggressive and unwilling to buckle.
His reward was a rare chance to stay on the floor for the entire final period. Frankly, Watson gave coach Tyrone Corbin no other choice.
So did starting point guard Devin Harris, for that matter. Harris’ late-game failings in Thursday’s loss to Dallas, highlighted — if that’s the word — by a memorable airball, cried out for Watson to take over the closer’s role. He delivered Saturday with six points, three rebounds and two assists in the fourth quarter, plus one of those critical, not-in-the-box-score plays.
With the Jazz holding a four-point lead and wobbling slightly at about the four-minute mark, Watson took a charge in the lane from Minnesota rookie Ricky Rubio. In the process, he basically saved the game — and may have broken a tooth.
“Whatever is takes to win,” said Watson, rubbing his jaw. “Sacrifice is part of the game.”
Other than Harris’ airball, the Jazz’s enduring image from Thursday was Watson’s encampment, facing his locker, while trying to process a tough defeat. His disappointment about losing that game said as much about the Jazz’s growth as any of their actions in victory this season, and they responded against Minnesota.
Asked when he finally got over that defeat, Watson said, “When the game started tonight. It took awhile.”
Harris himself played decently Saturday, but there would be no replacing Watson in the fourth quarter. Corbin used a clever strategy to keep Harris from sulking, playing the two point guards together in the last two minutes against Minnesota’s small lineup. That ploy enabled him to further reward Watson without punishing Harris.
Yet there could be no mistaking how much Watson merited staying out there. In all, he played a season-high 27 minutes and 40 seconds, posting 10 points and seven assists.
“He’s a pro,” Corbin said of the 32-year-old Watson. “He understands the game. He understands how to get his team going and he’s going to fight for everything you get. He’s not going to give anybody anything. Our guys feed off that when he’s on the floor.”
That usually applies to when Watson is teamed with C.J. Miles and other reserves, leading Miles to label him “as big an asset to this team as anybody.”
In this case, Watson played with fourth-quarter star Paul Millsap and the other starters, and he sure looked like he belonged.
Should he start? Not necessarily. Watson’s game of “constant energy,” in Miles’ words, functions best when he’s coming off the bench. But there’s nothing wrong with having Watson on the floor in Harris’ place at the end of games.
Asked if he welcomed that chance Saturday, Watson dribbled around the subject. “Um, the game happens so fast, I don’t even think about that,” he said.
You’d better believe others in Jazzland liked the idea, as this 10-5 team moves toward the end of a home-heavy January schedule. The Jazz have started this season well, giving themselves a chance to conclude it in the playoffs.
For now, Watson has set himself up to finish more games.