It’s Christmas. You want a bit of holiday cheer?
A new NBA season has begun, better late than not at all, even with the complications that exist on account of a stubborn pandemic that makes more problematic every bit of living, inside and out of basketball. Already, this second time around, games have been canceled — get used to it, it’s going to happen on the reg — but the Jazz got their first game in on the road against Portland, winning by 20 points.
It could have been by even more.
This is what was evident, at least as much as it could be after just a single showing:
The Jazz really did improve defensively, advanced from what they were last season.
“We have gotten better,” Quin Snyder conceded. “I’d like to see us get [even] better.”
Rudy Gobert is still Rudy. And that goes a long way toward hampering one of the two favored spots on the floor from which modern NBA teams prefer to shoot — the area around the basket. Gobert has been rock-steady in providing that for the Jazz, not just blocking shots, but discouraging them from being attempted.
As per the norm, he made maneuvering in and around the low block difficult for the Blazers, recovering nicely when Portland tried to lure him out of that area. He’s probably the best defensive force in the world. That’s not new, but it’s not old, either, not changing.
The Jazz also were improved at bothering the other favored shooting spot — around the arc. That was significant against a team like the Blazers, what with guards who can shoot it as well as any guards on any team in the NBA. And it’s important against every opponent.
Portland’s 3s weren’t dropping in this initial game mostly because Damian Lillard wasn’t feeling it. But Mitchell said the Jazz deserved credit for pressuring the prolific one. He didn’t score in the first half, and ended up with only nine points. CJ McCollum got 23 on 7-of-19 shooting, so the emphasis and energy within the Jazz’s resistance was notable, and, if sustainable, that will serve the team in a manner that might trigger memories of its overall defensive success two seasons back.
As for the Jazz on attack, as promised, they chucked deep balls all night, shooting 50 of them, making 19. Get used to it. That’s the way it’s going to be this season.
Make or miss, the ball’s going up.
When the Jazz weren’t launching, they were feeding Gobert, who wound up with 20 points, modeling greater offensive aggressiveness.
This is going to be fascinating to keep in focused view throughout the 2021 season, because the Jazz have so many offensive options. Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, there are a whole lot of bombers in that crowd, and a couple of power dunkers, Gobert and Derrick Favors, all to accommodate.
“Pressure on the rim opens up the 3-point line,” is the way Snyder said it. And he added that the opposite is true, too.
How those shots will be properly sliced and diced and divvied is a primary point for this Jazz iteration, the majority of frontline players capable of taking advantage of double-figured, double-barreled attempts. It will vary from night to night, and the Jazz would do well to recognize who has the touch on any specific occasion and get the ball to him.
No comprehensive hero ball, no predetermined piggish mentality.
In the opener, Gobert said, “We just kept playing the right way. When we move the ball that way, it doesn’t matter who gets the shot.”
Mitchell didn’t have his most explosive or efficient night, scoring 20 points on 16 shots and picking up five assists, but the thing was a laugher, the Jazz holding such a large lead throughout. There is no doubt in any corner that Mitchell has ascended to a position of privilege as the star of this team — everybody knows it. But he doesn’t have to dominate the ball, even though he can. The Jazz will need that, sometimes, especially when the playoffs roll around. But it’s healthy for everyone involved to care and share.
Another observation: The bench was strong, combining with starters in a flexible mix-and-match fashion that works.
One game proves nothing.
But what happened in the season-opener, against a tough opponent on the road, is a sweet bit of goodness for the Jazz and those who root for them. It was a small indication of what’s possible in a season bound to be weird and interrupted, at times disappointing in its nature, straight into the remaining teeth of the coronavirus.
But that’s the happy thought in a storm here.
The team that last season triggered the NBA shutdown on that infamous night in Oklahoma City on March 11, now has the wherewithal necessary to more capably handle such difficulties, such distractions, not because they are any more resistant to COVID than any other group of humans, rather because they’re more together.
“Playing unselfish,” Gobert said. “… It’s fun.”
So, on Christmas, at the end of a long, exhausting year full of challenges, that’s something for folks around here to feel good about. The Jazz will be better than a lot of people — experts — have predicted.
And Game 1 was just a small glimpse of what the possibilities are, as far as basketball goes, for a better experience in 2021. The Jazz themselves — quietly, not loudly — have suspected that to be true. They’ve whispered it. Now, they get to prove it.
Happy holidays, everyone. Happy — happier — new year.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.