Lake Buena Vista, Fla. • Given that it was Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 that sent the NBA into a monthslong hiatus, and given that it was Donovan Mitchell’s positive test for COVID-19 which threatened to tear apart the team’s chemistry, it seems fitting that those two combined on the defining play of the league’s first official comeback game Thursday night.
With the seconds ticking down in a tied game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Mitchell drove the lane, drew in Derrick Favors, then fired a brilliant no-look pass to his rolling big man, who was fouled and went to the line.
Gobert swished his free throws, Brandon Ingram’s open 3 at the horn rimmed out, and Utah held on for a momentous, historic 106-104 victory.
Asked afterward if it was something of a “poetic moment” for those two to connect on what proved to be the game-winning play, coach Quin Snyder wouldn’t go that far, but acknowledged that there has been and continues to be growth between them.
“I don’t think either one of those guys are writing poetry, but they certainly had some synergy on the court. I’d love ‘em to write poetry! But just to see them connected like that was really good,” Snyder said. “We’ve moved on from all that stuff — we’ve been here practicing and working and we’ve talked about using this experience to get better. And I think those two guys have done that, too. Sometimes, it’s just what you do on the court, even if just from an execution standpoint, and that’s one of the things we’re seeing.”
And seeing that meant also seeing them begin the restart with a crucial victory.
Jordan Clarkson overcame an awful shooting start to total a team-high 23 points off the bench, Mitchell and Mike Conley added 20 apiece (with the All-Star also contributing five rebounds and five assists), and Gobert added 14 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
It wasn’t lost on the big man, either, that after being blamed by many for shutting down professional sports, he not only had the first points of the league’s first restart game, but also the last — and winning — points, too.
“Life works in mysterious ways,” Gobert said afterward. “I’m just happy. Blessed to be able to get back on the court, do what I love to do, get back out there with my teammates and try to win a game.”
Of course, after a hot start that saw Utah take an early 19-8 lead, the Jazz fell apart to such an extent that pulling out a win seemed a remote possibility for a time.
Utah trailed by as many as 16 in the second half. And with just over 6 minutes to play, the Jazz appeared dead in the water. OK, they were technically lingering, hanging around within striking distance, down 96-89, but considering the defense had been inconsistent and the long-distance shooting abysmal throughout, a quick turnaround appeared less than promising.
And then, of course, just like that, they quickly turned it around.
Clarkson hit a 3 on a designed play out of a timeout, and Utah forced a miss on the other end. Gobert drove the lane for a lay-in … and the Pelicans missed another jumper. Royce O’Neale, drive and lay-in … Pelicans, missed jumper. Mitchell, double-clutch layup … Pelicans miss.
All of a sudden, Utah led 98-97 (New Orleans’ only point coming on a technical free throw for a defensive 3 seconds violation).
Still, this being Jazz vs. Pelicans, it couldn’t be quite that simple. Ingram rallied New Orleans back, tying the game on a pair of free throws with 32.1 seconds to play.
From there, the Jazz ran an iso for Conley, and though he missed a running floater, he was able to tap the ball out again and give the team another chance. That’s when Mitchell made his pass and Gobert made his free throws.
“Hopefully that kinda stops y’all from talking about it!” Mitchell said with a laugh. “At the end of the day, we’re basketball players trying to go out there and make the right plays. He did a hell of of a job today. I tried to find guys getting open. For me, at the end of the game, it’s about making the right read.”
Of course, he did his part in the scoring department, too, that contortionist layup of his proving the first two of eight straight points he’d drop in for the Jazz in the waning moments — right before he found Gobert.
“Donovan was terrific. … For him to be able to get in the lane and make the right read and attack the rim, and then also to make the play that he did late and drop the ball off to Rudy and then have Rudy make the two free throws, that shows a lot of confidence in your teammate,” Snyder said.
“Maybe I’ll change my mind and say it is poetic.”