It was some random possession Saturday night, not yet midway through the third period: Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale was standing out of bounds, looking to simply inbound the ball to teammate Bojan Bogdanovic and struggling to do so.
Bogey was being denied by Minnesota’s Malik Beasley, who was doggedly shadowing him, being physical with him, aggressively denying him. As O’Neale finally hurriedly threw the ball in to beat the five-count, Jarrett Culver jumped in and knocked it back in his face, then vigorously applauded his own dogged effort.
That singular play did not decide Saturday’s outcome, but it sure was emblematic of it, as the Timberwolves took the fight to their hosts, sending the Jazz to a dispiriting 116-111 loss in Utah’s home opener at Vivint Arena.
Coincidentally, another inbound play with 4.2 seconds to play effectively did decide the game, as Bogdanovic was whistled for a five-second violation after Jordan Clarkson slipped to the court with the Jazz down three points and 4.2 seconds remaining.
Minnesota set the tone early, as Beasley, Josh Okogie, Culver and Anthony Edwards all took turns harassing Utah’s ball-handlers all the way up the court, disrupting their sets with physicality, throwing off their rhythm.
“Minnesota was the more aggressive team. In the first half, they ran, they defended, and that’s why we gave up a 68-point half,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “… We’ve been defending and we’ve been running, and when we don’t do those two things, it’s a long nigh for us.”
After launching 3-pointers with great frequency in Wednesday’s season opener in Portland, the Jazz did not fire up a single shot from beyond the arc in the first five minutes of Saturday night’s game, and they had just four attempts through 10 minutes.
Still, they found themselves trailing by only four by quarter’s end, in spite of committing seven turnovers in the opening frame.
If that appeared an encouraging sign at the time, it didn’t turn out that way.
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors both had three first-half fouls, which only further hampered an already lackluster defensive effort (the Wolves shot 11 of 20 from 3-point range before halftime). And that prolific offense that lit up the Moda Center? Nowhere to be found early at the Viv, with a dozen turnovers and 33.3% 3-point shooting the hallmarks of a 15-point deficit at the break.
Utah did finally emerge from its lethargic stupor deep in the third.
Mitchell started attacking the rim with urgency, and even though he wasn’t making his shots, the Jazz did get buckets off of back-to-back-to-back putbacks — first via Mitchell rebounding one brick for a lay-in-and-one, then with Gobert soaring in to ram home the next two. That 10-2 run made it a single-digit deficit for the first time in some time.
The run was extended to 20-8 a few minutes into the fourth, as consecutive triples from Clarkson got the Jazz as close at 94-89 with 8:57 to play.
The 1,800 or so fans in attendance at the Viv were buzzing, sensing the momentum finally going their way.
It didn’t last long.
Karl-Anthony Towns drove in unimpeded for a layup. A missed layup by Clarkson enabled Beasley to leak out against an oblivious defense, collect the deep outlet, and convert a layup of his own. Towns hit a jumper, got fouled, and made the free throw.
“They took us out of a lot of our actions. We gotta find ways to respond to that,” said Donovan Mitchell. “… We waited too long — it’s tough to come back from a 17-point deficit.”
While the Jazz kept the game within shouting distance — several times getting as close as four points in the final 3 minutes, and within 111-109 with 5.9 seconds to play — they never could quite get over the top.
Clarkson had a team-high 23 points, while Mitchell added 21, though he was a not-exactly efficient 6-for-21 in getting there. Bogdanovic, meanwhile, endured an even more brutal performance, looking off-kilter all night, a short-armed layup deep in the fourth summarizing his 3-for-16 shooting effort.
Mike Conley kept the Jazz in it for a time with aggressive shot-making, and finished with 20 points, six rebounds and four assists. Gobert overcame his foul trouble (he picked up his fourth just 28 seconds into the third quarter) to finish with 16 points and 15 boards.
Still, Utah shot just 38.3% from the field on the night and went 10 of 34 from deep. Minnesota, meanwhile, went 13 of 29 beyond the arc.
“We weren’t attacking — it’s really that simple,” Snyder said. “… When you start getting stops, that enables you to start getting downhill. But it was too little, too late.”