Only a couple of hours before tipoff Wednesday night, workers were hurriedly peeling off the giant wrapping on the southeast facade of EnergySolutions Arena, still promoting the recent NuSkin convention.
The unfinished nature of the Jazz also was on display inside the building. The new-look home team rallied in the fourth quarter, only to fade at the end and enable Oklahoma City to hold on for a 101-98 victory.
The Jazz stirred hopes of a memorable Opening Night upset by getting within one point after Gordon Hayward’s steal and dunk with 4:34 remaining, after having trailed by 15 in the third quarter. They just couldn’t finish, scoring a total of three points on their next eight possessions.
With one last chance to tie the game and earn millions of dollars — well, potentially driving up the Jazz’s final offer for a contract extension — Hayward rimmed out a 3-pointer from the right angle.
Hayward slumped his shoulders, shook his head and stood for a moment, then walked stoically off the court, slapping teammates’ hands on the way to the locker room.
So ended a game that will serve as the boilerplate for much of this season, especially at home. The Jazz played just well enough to walk away disappointed. In an NBA where Philadelphia can beat Miami, the Jazz rarely will be embarrassed if they keep battling to this degree.
Winning in the end, against good teams? That’s another issue entirely.
“It’s something we’re going to have to learn how to do,” Hayward said.
There’s so much to like about this performance, from Alec Burks’ 24 points to journeyman Mike Harris’ surprising contribution to the inside work of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. This team will produce snapshots of good stuff, like John Lucas lobbing a pass to Favors for a dunk and then absorbing a charging foul, Hayward hustling to grab his own rebound and shoveling the ball to Favors for a dunk, Favors passing to Hayward for another dunk and Burks making an acrobatic reverse layup. Admirably, the Jazz did not crumble in the third quarter, when the Thunder asserted themselves.
Coming close was “great for our confidence,” Burks said.
The thing is, the follow-through means everything in this league.
“We gave ourselves a chance, which is always good,” said Hayward, who missed badly on two other 3-pointers, which he forced up as late options on scattered possessions.
“We’ve got to execute better offensively to get better looks,” Hayward said, following his last on-court bargaining opportunity, about 24 hours before the deadline for his extension.
Before the tip, Hayward took the microphone and promised the team was “committed to playing Jazz basketball every night.” You know what? That’s kind of what they proceeded to do. The Jazz hustled, defended and shared the ball, with 16 of their 18 first-half baskets resulting from assists.
They also showed their deficiencies with 22 turnovers in the game. And after playing an otherwise solid half, Lucas totally blew the final sequence, allowing the Thunder’s Thabo Sefalosha to hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
The Jazz used only nine players. They’ll have more depth when Trey Burke, Brandon Rush and Marvin Williams are healthy. Even then, they won’t have anybody named Kevin Durant, whose 42 points included 22 (of 24) free throws.
That’s what the Jazz will lack, in terms of finishing power, superstar-driven calls and everything else associated with someone like Durant. Fans probably will have to be satisfied with efforts like this, if not the outcomes.
“If I see our guys getting better and developing as players and as people,” Jazz CEO Greg Miller said this week, “it makes it easier for me to deal with some of the frustration.”
That’s some, not all. The 2013-14 season opener was a classic case, in that regard.