Orlando, Fla. • Rallying back from a 16-point deficit to win Thursday night proved quite the happy ending for the Utah Jazz in their official return to action.
Of course, given that they fell behind by 16 against the Pelicans to begin with, they recognize that there’s myriad improvements yet to make, especially with their second seeding game coming up Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Lots of things we can build on, but obviously we also have work to do,” coach Quin Snyder noted.
Things were initially looking good for the Jazz, as they raced out to a 19-8 lead. However, early foul trouble for Joe Ingles led to stagnation on offense, and Rudy Gobert checking out for a break enabled New Orleans to attack Utah’s defense with impunity. The team’s bench players could not staunch the bleeding.
All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who would finish with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals, acknowledged that he and his teammates did not always have a good, in-rhythm flow working early on.
“This was just trying to find our groove. We had it at the start of the game, and then it went downhill,” Mitchell said. “They started to dictate the game on both ends.”
Snyder agreed that Utah’s problems on both ends were interconnected.
“About the 6-minute mark, I thought, offensively the ball started to stick, and when you’re not making shots — which we didn’t — it becomes even more difficult to defend on the other end,” he said.
Hard to disagree with any of that.
In the first half, the Jazz shot just 15 of 45 overall, and were only 4 of 20 from beyond the arc. And Snyder’s criticism of the ball sticking was reflected in the fact that Utah managed only four assists before halftime.
New Orleans, meanwhile, was making the Jazz pay on the other end. In particular, All-Star forward Brandon Ingram was demonstrating little trouble wriggling past whichever perimeter defender was checking him and had absolutely no problems getting off a shot anytime he wanted.
If Utah was going to rally, they’d have to make the game more difficult for Ingram. And they did.
“Just trying to make it tough on him,” Gobert said. “Royce [O’Neale] did a tremendous job down the stretch. He hit a lot of tough shots early on, but we tried to keep him off the [free throw] line and give him contested shots, but he made a few and missed some and we were able to come up with the ball and run on the other end.”
Snyder agreed, saying there were no seismic tactical adjustments, simply better execution.
“We didn’t change any coverages, we just started being more disciplined,” he said. “I thought there was a stretch where we were just doing a lot of reaching and we were off-balance. They were getting to the rim. I think that half of their points in the first half were from the paint. I just think that we got more solid as the game progressed. We kind of set a goal in the fourth quarter to have our best defensive quarter.”
And they did — forcing six consecutive stops down the stretch and limiting the Pelicans to just 17 points overall after they’d totaled 26, 34, and 27, respectively, in the previous three periods.
As for the offense, Snyder said there was an adjustment there, albeit a small and simple one.
“One of the biggest problems we had in the first half — and it’s a subtle thing, but it’s such an important thing — was our spacing,” he explained. “When we don’t space well, there aren’t driving lines.”
By slightly shifting where players were on the court, there suddenly was room for Jordan Clarkson to get to the hoop. And after going 2 of 9 in the first half, he shot 6 of 8 in the second en route to a team-high 23 points. Meanwhile, Gobert, O’Neale and Mitchell all had key drives to the hoop as well in one critical fourth-quarter sequence.
“The biggest thing was just putting pressure on them,” Mitchell acknowledged.
And the biggest thing now, he added, is to constantly keep looking for ways to make things work.
“It’s not gonna go your way every night, but as long as you keep fighting, you’ll find a way to get back and be fine,” Mitchell said.
UTAH JAZZ VS. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
At The Arena, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Tipoff • 1:30 p.m. MT
TV • ESPN, AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain
Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM
Records • Jazz 42-23; Thunder 40-24
Last meeting • Thunder, 104-90 (Dec. 9, 2019)
About the Jazz • Utah opened up the official NBA restart on Thursday with a 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. … The Jazz were set to play the Thunder back on March 11 when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the season was suspended. … Utah had a rough 3-point shooting game in its last meeting with OKC, going just 8 for 31.
About the Thunder • This will be Oklahoma City’s first “seeding game” in the NBA season restart. … Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads the Thunder with 19.3 ppg, while Danilo Gallinari averages 19.2. … Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroeder blistered the Jazz for 31 points in their last meeting.