For three days, if playing basketball wasn’t quite the last thing on most NBA players’ minds, it at least was not their primary focus. There has been dismay over yet another police shooting of a Black man. And with has come a renewed call to focus on racial equality, and police reform, and voter registration. And with that have come formalized agendas and negotiated partnerships with the league and its ownership to help bring about policies intended to enact lasting change.
And now, those agreements in place, those players are expected to flip the switch and resume turning their attention to the playoffs: Jazz vs. Nuggets, Game 6, Sunday, 6:30 p.m. MDT, TNT, potential elimination game, et cetera, et cetera.
Except, everyone involved knows it’s not quite that simple.
“Specific to what’s happened these last few days, I think that the challenge of going from that to a practice setting or a game is significant,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said Saturday. “And to the extent that it requires some level of compartmentalization, I think that’s there, but at the same time, you don’t want to diminish anything that’s happened previously, or is happening, with basketball.”
His Nuggets counterpart, Michael Malone, agreed that after things came to “a boiling point,” asking players to simply focus on basketball going forward is unrealistic.
“[Friday] was probably our worst practice that I’ve been a part of in my five years. And I wasn’t surprised, and I understood it,” Malone said. “I sympathize for our players, because so much is being asked of them on the court, and so much is being asked for them off the court. And they’re doing their best.”
The players who addressed the media Saturday all conceded as much. And it became more apparent still considering no one bothered discussing Game 6 strategy, keys, adjustments, et cetera.
While All-Star center Rudy Gobert said that he and his teammates were “trying to be focused on the game,” and trying to remain professional, and trying to put themselves in a position to be at their best, and trying to remember all the work they’ve put in to get to the point, there’s simply no getting around the fact that “there’s a lot of things going on, and there’s been a lot going on, and there’s going to keep being a lot of things going on.”
Or, as point guard Mike Conley put it, “For the moment, the game is taking a backseat to what’s important in a lot of our lives.”
Which isn’t to say that basketball is no longer important. But it’s all relative.
And if the return of the games has inured some members of the public to the problems the players have tried to highlight, isolation in the bubble has not dulled the players’ sensitivity to what’s taking place in the real world.
“We’re used to having to compartmentalize a lot of things — whether we have things going on at home or personal issues — and trying to go out there and perform at a high level. But, being here in a bubble, it’s tough to be here knowing what’s going on outside and what’s continually going on, and it seems like you’re just so distant from it,” Conley added. “But with that, it gives us an opportunity to play the game and showcase what we believe in — everybody’s personal opinions and the challenges they want to pursue. So for us, it’s just trying to focus on the game, but at the same time realizing it’s just a game and there’s a bigger picture to everything.”
So, any discussion of what’s necessary to bounce back from a Game 5 defeat, how to slow down Jamal Murray, how to prevent Nikola Jokic from becoming a facilitator, what method will be best for handling the Nuggets’ high-doubling of Donovan Mitchell … it will all be on the Jazz players’ minds, it just may to be the only thing on their minds.
“Well, I don’t know that it’s a bad thing for you to be focused on what’s going on in our country as opposed to basketball — I think that was really the whole point,” said Snyder. “And I don’t think you move from that and say, ‘This happened and now we’re going to go back to playing basketball.’ That’s not what’s going on here.
“… Obviously, when when the games start, your focus is on playing the game. In many instances, that’s difficult. That’s a hard thing to do. But I think it’s also something that guys are prepared to do,” he added. “I know they love to play. We love this game and all the things that it can bring and do that don’t show up on the scoreboard. That’s a bundle of things that can all be happening at the same time, and one serves as a catalyst for the other.”
Jazz lead best-of-seven series 3-2
Game 1 • Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Game 2 • Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Game 3 • Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Game 4 • Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Game 5 • Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Game 6 • Sunday, 6:30 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 7 • Day, time and TV, TBD*
* If necessary