Most of Friday night’s third quarter had gone the Jazz’s way, and yet they were still only up seven points against the Washington Wizards and their 30th-ranked defense.
Bradley Beal — the league’s foremost scoring supernova since Damian Lillard — thought he was about to make it a five-point game, darting past Joe Ingles and down an open lane for an apparent layup.
Except that Royce O’Neale (temporarily deployed as a smallball center) swooped in from the weak side to erase the shot, and on the other end, 6-foot point guard Mike Conley unleashed his inner Kevin McHale, eventually dropping in a short floater over defender Davis Bertans following a nifty up-and-under move.
The four-point swing provided a nine-point cushion, which in turn provided some breathing room — which in turn proved just enough for the Jazz to hold on and pull out a 129-119 victory, thereby ending their interminable four-game losing streak.
In a game full of “Wow, really?!” moments — Donovan Mitchell’s murderous-intentions jam; Jordan Clarkson’s pivot-pivot-pivot-pivot-pivot fadeaway; Tony Bradley’s 3-pointer off a jump ball and with an expiring shot clock — it was the sequence of O’Neale’s block and Conley’s footwork-and-finish (through non-called contact from Bertans) that really and truly got the Vivint Smart Home Arena Crowd rolling.
“I had to channel my inner Rudy [Gobert],” O’Neale said with a smile. “… Me and Joe got this connection on the court where he was like, ‘I’m not giving up the 3, and I’m gonna make [Beal] drive into you.’ And I said, ‘Alright, I’m gonna come helpside,’ and just got the block. We got the stop.”
One which really put the Jazz on the pathway to victory.
True, they would expand that lead all the way up to 15 over the next three minutes, then lose all but three points of that after just another three minutes, but that sequence seemingly infused them with a confidence that had been lacking for much of the previous games in the homestand.
“That’s how we want to play. We had more deflections than we’ve had in awhile,” said coach Quin Snyder. “We have to be a determined team. Offensively, playing through contact; defensively, being aggressive. … I thought our team took some pride in that. … Not giving up easy baskets and not giving up empty possessions gives you a chance.”
“That kind of momentum swing is huge for us,” agreed Conley. “It just gave our team some life and made us all believe we’re finally doing the right thing.”
While it was far from an ideal performance, the Jazz would take it, though; especially after they fell behind 10-2 on account of multiple blown defensive switches, three turnovers committed, three offensive rebounds allowed, and a flagrant foul committed on a 3-point attempt — all within the game’s first 2.5 minutes.
In the end, Mitchell overcame a subpar shooting effort to total 30 points — aided in big part by 10 free-throw attempts (he also added eight rebounds). Bojan Bogdanovic also ended his post-All-Star break scoring slump, draining 4 of 9 from 3-point range to total 21 points. Clarkson also had another energetic effort off the bench, constantly propping up the second unit with his whirling-dervish maneuvers, and racking up with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Conley, meanwhile, more than justified his continuing presence in the lineup, not only dropping in 16 points, but keeping the offense rolling with his pinpoint passing, to the tune of six assists. He also made an impression with his hustle and effort.
“I saw him — during a crucial point in the game — just sell out and dive on the floor to come up with a loose ball,” Snyder said. “That, to me, just epitomized his game.”
Conley, meanwhile, said he has his entire team doing much the same.
“Man, really, it was just, ‘How bad do we want it?’ Plays where guys are diving on the floor, or causing turnovers, keeping second chances alive were plays we were missing [before],” he said. “And you could just feel it — you could just feel the guys really trying to give that effort, trying to give that little bit extra just to get the win.”
And while Gobert again finished with just nine points and nine rebounds (plus four blocks), seven of his points came in the pivotal third period.
Conley found him early on a lob. His final bucket similarly came on a dunk, when Mitchell freed him with a screen, the Frenchman surprised the defense by faking one way and going another, and Bogdanovic fed him at the exact proper moment to facilitate the dunk.
Utah wound up outscoring Washington 32-21 in that period, as the Wizards converted just 7 of 24 shots in the quarter.
And in the end, the Jazz were able to not only pull out a much-needed victory, but — perhaps even more importantly — to set aside the momentary result and focus on getting the team’s process back where it needed to be.
“People overreact to winning and losing — the idea is to keep getting better,” Gobert said. “Sometimes you win games that you don’t deserve to win, and sometimes you lose games that you deserve to win. It’s all about the way you lose and the way you win, and it’s all about where we’re gonna be when the playoffs come.”