There couldn’t have been a much more disparate matchup than the one at EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday night. Two very distant NBA cousins faced off and, coming in, they looked nothing alike: the two-time-defending-champion Heat against the too-too-defenseless Jazz.
The last time these teams played, the Heat shot a franchise-record 63.4 percent en route to a 23-point laugher.
Well. It didn’t happen like that this time around. The Jazz ended a four-game losing streak by the count of 94-89, and, for one night at least, a few glances at the champs looked to Marvin Williams and Trey Burke and Gordon Hayward as though they were looking at themselves in a mirror.
So much for any kind of stark, divergent comparison between a club racing for another title, and a club racing for a top pick in the draft. At ESA, they were rubbing-and-racing for a regular-season win in February.
Thing is, the Jazz earned this victory. They played tough from start to finish. They nearly led from beginning to end. And while the Heat slept through much of this game, they tried to stir themselves, tried to turn it on down the stretch — and couldn’t.
The Jazz wouldn’t let them.
When Miami closed to within two in the last minute, Burke hit a jumper with 24 ticks remaining to stretch the lead back to four. Huge.
“It was a great experience out there,” Burke said. “It was even a better win.”
Let’s be clear here: If the Jazz aspire to one day be what the Heat now are — and they do — they’ve got a long stretch to cover. Can your imagination stretch that far? On Saturday night it could. What they have to do is keep playing just like that every night. They have to learn every night. On the other hand, maybe a more realistic route is losing even more than they already do, straight to that high lottery pick. In the modern realities of the NBA, it’s probably their quickest way up.
But sooner or later, they must learn to win, too.
And they took a few steps in that direction here.
“You’ve got to bring energy and effort,” said Tyrone Corbin afterward. “These guys were great.”
Corbin wasn’t bad himself. He coached his tail off in this game, spinning around the side of the court on almost every trip, exhorting his players to bring what they could at both ends. They listened and they did. For the Jazz, it was the closest thing to a playoff game they will live through this season. For the Heat, it felt like the preseason.
Williams went for 23 points, hitting 5 of 8 from behind the arc, including a ridiculous off-balance, desperation bomb at the 3:35 mark of the fourth that preserved a Jazz lead. But nearly all the Jazz players, vets and youngsters, did something that was positive.
Everybody knows the Heat, with their Big 3. LeBron James remains the best player on the planet. Against the Jazz, though, he looked like a dog, hitting just 4 of 13 shots for 13 points and gagging up five turnovers. Chris Bosh brought nothing. Dwyane Wade tried to lift the others, going for 19.
“It was just one of those days,” James said.
The Jazz have no such stars. If they do, they’re buried deep in embryo.
A few of them grew up fast on Saturday night, spreading the overall effort around.
Unlike the Heat, the Jazz will never be able to shop for stars on the free-agent market. They have to develop and draft them. So that’s what they’re attempting to do. That first part is what they did against the Heat.
Question is: Can they stay consistent with that effort, those results?
Answer is: Not yet. That’s the reason the Jazz stunk the night before in Dallas. That’s the reason the Jazz have the worst record in the West. That’s the reason they will pick early in the draft.
For the Jazz, despite their big win Saturday night, this season is more a march toward coming seasons. Still, winning has its benefits for the young club. Those were etched all over their faces in celebration.
They saw what they want to be when they grow up right there in front of them on the floor at ESA. At first, it was the other guys, the team with the stars. But then, at second glance, it was … themselves. They saw their own reflection in that mirror and liked what they saw.
All they have to do now is keep working, keep growing, keep following the plan, get a good draft pick, and keep hoping that one day they will always bear a striking resemblance to their accomplished cousin from afar.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.