Utah Jazz reflect on finally playing OKC, months after March 11: ‘It’s pretty surreal that we ended up here’

Utah Jazz's Mike Conley (10) guards Oklahoma City Thunder's Chris Paul (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. • That night in Oklahoma City when everything changed seems forever ago now for the Utah Jazz. And in many respects, it is.

Still, given that their worldviews were inexorably changed back on March 11, with Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test coming out minutes before they were set to play a game against the Thunder, finally actually taking on OKC at The Arena inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Saturday afternoon couldn’t help but dredge up the past.

“That game was a unique set of circumstances that we’ll never see again,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.

Even though the Jazz have been practicing together for weeks now, and had three scrimmages and one seeding game under their belt already coming into Saturday’s matchup against Oklahoma City, Snyder was nevertheless asked if finally facing the Thunder might provide some sense of closure.

He didn’t discount the possibility, acknowledging, “I think when we play Oklahoma City tonight, some of that will come back for both teams.”

That proved the case for some more than others.

Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who was on the court that night in OKC, unaware as yet that just a day later, he’d become the second player in the league to test positive for COVID-19 — mere hours after Gobert became the first — noted Saturday that he was reminiscing about March 11 with Thunder guard Chris Paul.

Mitchell, for one, was glad to see OKC remain on Utah’s restart schedule just because of how everything played out.

“The biggest things is — we had a talk about this right before the game — it’s pretty surreal that we ended up here kind of replaying the game,” Mitchell said. “… We’ve talked about just how crazy life has been since the last time we saw these guys. It was refreshing to go out there and play that game specifically, because it was kind of the one that really changed a lot — throughout the world. For us to get out there, outside just the game itself but as a whole moment for the NBA, it was a pretty special moment.”

Paul concurred that getting to catch up with Mitchell in such circumstances was a big moment.

“Donovan’s like my brother. Seriously man, I love him to death. And not only him — his mom, his sister; seriously, he’s like my brother. And so, before the game we talked about how odd it was that the shutdown happened against those guys, and our first game back was against those guys,” Paul said. “One thing about it, the thing that I respect most is we can have that relationship off the court, but when we get on the court, we get to it. We try to bring out the best in each other.”

For others, that “getting after it” was the only notable aspect of the game — it was just another opponent on the schedule.

“Honestly, I don’t think too many guys were thinking about it,” Mike Conley said afterward. “I think it was just us thinking about the Thunder, competing and trying to get a win in a big game. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that [in Saturday’s 110-94 loss], but it’s good to move on from what happened three, four months ago and get that game out of the way.”

Snyder, like Mitchell, would use the word “surreal” when reflecting on those long-ago events, noting how bizarre it proved to be that the team’s two All-Stars both tested positive, but that no one else in the traveling party did.

And, given the subsequent fallout — for the team, the league, the sports world at large — he noted that “what happened in OKC was historic.”

However, he also maintained that the drastic difference in societal standpoints between then and now also meant that there wouldn’t be too much significance ascribed to this contest finally taking place, in his estimation.

“Even though that night in Oklahoma City was as dramatic as it was, as we’ve been through the subsequent three, four months, it gives you an appreciation for, really in many ways, how unimportant that game was, relative to all the people that have been fighting this virus, the health care workers that are on the front lines, people that have given their lives to protect other people, the many people that have gotten sick, the people that tragically have passed away,” Snyder said. “So that game starts to fade away as far as its importance on a larger scale.”