Los Angeles • If the Utah Jazz were looking for something to warm them up after four easy preseason wins, a date with the Los Angeles Lakers was the ticket.
The Jazz played close to a full rotation, with starters seeing fourth quarter minutes for the first time this season. It was tight, with 17 lead changes throughout. After a ghostly crowd at the Talking Stick Resort Arena the night before, a rowdy Staples Center felt like a playoff atmosphere by comparison.
And the Jazz — is this what they’ll look like? With Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell leading the way, fans got their first look at what might be the crunch-time lineup in a 105-99 win over the Lakers. The score didn’t matter, nor did the 5-0 record the Jazz finished their preseason with, but there was a concrete sense of identity that their earlier exhibitions lacked, even while missing a starter.
With Gobert dunking and grabbing key rebounds, Mitchell attacking the rim and hitting a key 3-pointer late, and Ricky Rubio grabbing a game-sealing steal, the Jazz showed their hand. It wasn’t necessarily a sign that the team is going back to the postseason, but if they are bound to return, these are the pieces they’ve got.
“We never left,” Gobert said. “I’m excited for the year. We have a good team.”
It was a multi-pronged attack from a Jazz team that missed one of its best scorers for much of the evening. At the fore was Gobert, who parlayed a night off Monday into a 29-point, 13-rebound performance while dominating Lakers big man Brook Lopez. Another component was Mitchell (26 points), who took on a huge load after Rodney Hood exited the game early. Rubio had his second straight game of 20-plus points, and added six assists.
The Jazz needed every bit of the night they got from those three: It was a tight battle with the Lakers throughout. Utah’s lead was a point after the first quarter, three points at halftime and two points after the third.
In the fourth, Utah Utes product Kyle Kuzma (18 points) helped spur a run that boosted the Lakers’ lead as high as seven points. But putting the starters back in, the Jazz rolled back into the game and clinched late as Mitchell accounted for a layup and a 3-pointer.
Rubio stole a turnover in the final minute, then made a free throw at the line to seal things up.
“To have the guys defend in the fourth quarter like we did, giving up only 22 points,” coach Quin Snyder said, “it was a good game and a good win, even though it was in the preseason.”
As the Jazz hoped to get out of the preseason healthy, there were a few minor concerns: Raul Neto missed his third game with quad soreness, sitting out the second game of the back-to-back. Hood left the game after four minutes, which the team attributed to neck soreness.
The guard deficit left Utah having to be even more creative at point, which has been a problem since Dante Exum went down Friday against the Suns. Rubio and Mitchell played most of the minutes at point.
For the second straight night, Mitchell helped boost the Jazz with aggressive offensive play, particularly on high-speed drives to the basket and clever cross-steps that left defenders lurching in his wake. Toward the end of the first quarter he found his touch, scoring nine straight points on his way to a big night.
“You just gotta stay focused and not really thinking about closing it,” he said. “Just think it as a regular situation where you’re back in the practice court making smart shots, making reads and just going out and making plays.”
Rubio continued his run as a scorer, striking efficiently in the first half and finishing with 22 points on 6 of 18 shooting.