Orlando, Fla. • What Rudy Gobert ascribes to fate is probably actually more the result of a savvy schedule-maker with a keen sense of both history and symmetry, but who are we to burst his bubble? (Proverbially, of course.)
When asked what it would mean to be a part of the NBA’s first official restart game on Thursday, the player who had the misfortune of having the league’s first positive COVID-19 test — which shut down the season — put this coming moment in perfect, bookended perspective.
“Well, I was part of the closing, so it’s meant to be that I’ve got to be part of the reopening,” Gobert said.
The second player in the league to test positive for the coronavirus was in agreement.
“You know, when you sit back and think about it, like Rudy said, it’s only right that we start it off,” added Donovan Mitchell. “It’s a big moment for sure, for the league and for us, to go out there and just to hoop and kind of just show that we’re over all the things that have happened.”
That last component, actually, is not to be overlooked.
Yes, it’s cool the Jazz are in the first game back, and yes, it’s a momentous, historic occasion that this new (and hopefully temporary) brand of professional basketball will debut with them, but they can’t afford to let all the cool and significant window dressing overshadow the substance of what they’re there for.
Namely, they’ve got eight games to work with to overcome the loss of injured No. 2 scorer Bojan Bogdanovic and put themselves in prime position to succeed in the playoffs.
“Even though we’re referring to these as ‘seeding games,’ I think the key word is ‘games.’ And, particularly for a team like ours that has lost a key player, there is an adjustment period. At some point, that adjustment is you’re moving forward,” said coach Quin Snyder. “As much as we miss Bojan and care for him and his health, there’s a reality right now that this is the group we have.”
Mitchell concurred again.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s a restart. I think ‘restart’ [gives off] kind of that early-season vibe, [where] … you gradually jump into things. We don’t have time for that,” he said. “… If we come out slowly trying to find our rhythm, we could be right back to the seventh seed.”
And so, the group the Jazz have will have to be enough. But will it be? Can it be? What, exactly, can we expect to see from these Utah Jazz when they take the court against the Pelicans on Thursday?
Snyder spent the team’s three inter-squad scrimmages going all mad scientist in the laboratory, experimenting with double-big lineups featuring both Gobert and backup Tony Bradley as a nominal stretch-four; playing around with four-guard lineups surrounding Gobert in order to ratchet up both defensive pressure and switchability, as well as generating prolific attack units on offense; and bolstering the Mitchell-Gobert relationship by increasing the pick-and-roll opportunities between them.
He has reduced the number of elongated, multiple-pass sets and encouraged assertive, aggressive, instinctive, uptempo, early-in-the-clock and off-the-bounce attempts to make up for what they lost in sheer catch-and-shoot firepower with Bogdanovic gone.
“I think we’ll keep figuring out little things that work and don’t work. I think we’ve probably [already] figured some things out,” said Joe Ingles. “We know defensively what we need to do; we look really good when we push the ball; we’ve played a lot of the time with four guards. Little things like that.”
He added that he expects the new-and-improved Mike Conley Show to make an extended run, as well.
Conley hopes the same, and believes himself to be in good position to make it happen.
“A lot of things have obviously taken a little bit of time. But everything is really comfortable right now, everything seems easier — understanding the offense, understanding the defense, understanding the players, understanding my role,” he said. “I think the three scrimmage games were a good indicator of my comfort level as I’ve grown with the team. And I’m excited to just continue to grow with it.”
Snyder and Conley and Ingles were all in agreement that the goal of the coming octet of games on their schedule would best be put to use not by focusing on potential matchups or seeding, but by simply becoming the best version of themselves that they’re capable of.
“Whoever you play in the West is gonna be a tough, tough matchup, it’s gonna be a tough out either way,” Conley added. “With no home-court advantage, with no crowd, with no altitude, with none of that stuff at our advantage, it’s just more important that we take each opponent — no matter who it is — and try to put the best brand of basketball on the floor to make us successful.”
This Jazz team has already traveled a long road. Now, they’ve got another journey — equally big, if fundamentally different — set to begin.
“There’s been a strong belief within our team that this is something that ultimately — as difficult as it was over a period of weeks and months — it’s become a unifying experience,” Snyder said. “… I do think, retrospectively, that we will look back and understand that there’s a significance there.”