Quin Snyder nicely summarized the Jazz’s opening week of the NBA season, describing their opponents as “three teams that acquired All-Stars in the offseason.”
He also provided the solution to coping with life in the West, saying, “The challenge is for us to maintain our identity.” And then the Jazz went out Saturday night and completed a very good week by doing what they do best in a 96-87 win over Oklahoma City at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Nobody ever is more subdued in victory than Snyder. “Sometimes,” he said, “a game makes you look better than you are.”
Thunder coach Billy Donovan, while crediting the Jazz, agreed: “I thought we had some shots that we are certainly more than capable of making and finishing, and we didn’t.”
So the overreaction is left to the rest of us, here in October. A sellout crowd sure seemed impressed with the Jazz’s showing in an effort that framed everything this team is about: defense that frustrates the other guys and offense that is unselfishly efficient enough to succeed. Mix in the poise that rookie guard Donovan Mitchell and his teammates displayed when the Thunder rallied to begin the fourth quarter, and this outcome was encouraging.
Even Snyder allowed, “Maybe there’s more of those nights ahead for us.”
The week’s schedule conveniently framed the Jazz’s challenge in the Western Conference, as they played three teams that finished behind them in the 2016-17 standings and made significant upgrades. The Jazz overcame Paul Millsap and the Denver Nuggets in the season opener, then lost to Jimmy Butler and Minnesota on the road Friday and came home to meet a rested OKC team featuring new arrivals Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
Some combination of the schedule and OKC’s talent almost cost the Jazz a victory, after they built a 20-point lead in the third quarter. But they steadied themselves, earning a win that inspires some belief.
Last season’s 29-12 home record was not symbolic of a 51-win team. Saturday’s effort came in the kind of game that only a good home team wins. It came on “5 For the Fight Night,” and here’s an important disclaimer: I’m not equating the Jazz’s charitable effort to combat cancer, as advertised on their jersey-sponsor patches, with winning a basketball game.
Yet some connection is unmistakable. These guys are fighters, and their fourth-quarter display of toughness followed a moment between periods when fans stood and showed the names of people close to them affected by cancer.
The Jazz responded after OKC cut their lead from 17 points to seven in the first three minutes of the quarter. The Thunder suddenly seemed capable of winning on a night when Russell Westbrook, George and Anthony started a combined 5 of 25 from the field and the visitors scored 19 points in the game’s first 20 minutes.
But then Mitchell, having started in place of the injured Rodney Hood, drove for his only basket of the game and assisted Derrick Favors’ jumper to make it 80-69. The Thunder never threatened again.
Ricky Rubio cost the Jazz a point with a lane violation on Steven Adams’ free-throw miss. He also owes 18,300 people a chicken sandwich, as Adams’ extra attempt voided the promotion that kicks in when an opponent misses consecutive foul shots in the fourth quarter.
As consolation, Rubio made a clinching shot on the Jazz’s next possession. So ended a game that featured Joe Ingles’ 19-point showing as the highlight of the Jazz’s offense, and Rubio’s work on Westbrook headlined their defense. This qualifies as news: Westbrook finished with a single-double (13 rebounds, nine assists, six points).
And that’s how the Jazz won a game they seemingly were destined to lose. At some point, I made a notation of “lead gone,” to be updated when the Jazz fell behind in the second half. But that never happened. The blank went unfilled.