There’s plenty of built-in intrigue, no doubt, in the Utah Jazz’s first trip back to Oklahoma City since the infamous events of March 11.
Of far more immediate concern to the Jazz, though, are the events of this past Saturday night, wherein they were unexpectedly physically manhandled for much of the game at Vivint Arena by a young-but-truculent Minnesota Timberwolves squad.
While Mike Conley flat-out denied the Jazz took the Wolves lightly, and Rudy Gobert added he didn’t think that was the case in the aftermath of Utah’s 116-111 defeat, their subsequent explanatory comments perhaps indicated that maybe it was not quite so cut-and-dried.
“We definitely didn’t take them for granted, and we knew that they’re capable of coming out and being a team that can come out and do this,” Conley said. “A lot of the guys made the plays they needed to, and just outworked us in a lot different facets of the game.”
“Every night is different,” Gobert added. “The first game in Portland, we knew that we had to really come out and be locked in; and tonight maybe we felt like we didn’t have to come out as physical, as locked in, and we felt that.”
Which is not ideal.
Now comes the question of what to do about it.
No one on the team bothered denying that Minnesota set the tone early with its aggressive on-ball defense, which disrupted Utah’s movement and timing and led to a dozen first-half turnovers. The real is question is why it took the Jazz so long to do anything about it.
While there is a natural temptation to simply throw the game away, to discount it as one bad night early in the season not to be overacted to, it warrants mentioning that both of the team’s stars, Donovan Mitchell and Gobert, expressed concern about the lack of urgency, the lack of response to the physicality, as they’ve seen it occur too many times in the past.
“This is something we shouldn’t have let happen,” Mitchell said. “Now we’ve got to figure out how we counter that, because it’s happened before.”
Gobert agreed, but suggested that perhaps it happening in the second game of this season could wind up being a positive, in serving as an early wake-up call.
“We had many of those games last year, and it’s good that we had one now, because I feel like we’re going to realize that we need to come out with the same intensity, same urgency,” he said.
Conley, on the other hand, wasn’t buying the notion that there was some long-term benefit outweighing a victory.
“Obviously, I think we would much rather come out with the W and not have to learn our lessons this way, in this fashion,” Conley said. “But we’ve got to understand that teams are going to come out and give us their best shot night in and night out, and we can’t take that for granted. We have to come with a better sense of urgency from the tip.”
What most frustrated coach Quin Snyder is that, in his estimation, there were early adjustments to be made — the players simply didn’t make them until it was too late.
While Mitchell lamented how easily the Wolves “took us out of a lot of our actions,” Snyder disagreed with that notion, countering, “They weren’t necessarily taking us out of out of things as much as we weren’t attacking — I think it’s that simple.”
So, again, why didn’t the Jazz go out and do it? That much they’re all in agreement about.
“We’ve just got to go out there and compete and be able to think while playing through the physicality,” Mitchell said.
“The games where we don’t have the legs, we’ve got to have the mind,” Gobert added. “We’ve got to be tough mentally.”
Quite simply, Snyder elaborated, the Jazz were so surprised by the Wolves’ antagonistic, combative style that they didn’t get around to working out the available counters to it until deep into the second half.
“We have an expression: You have to run your offense through their defense,” Snyder said. “It requires playing with more force than we did, being more precise than we were. … being able to initiate possessions with force to alleviate some of that ball pressure, and then you have to make quick decisions — when the ball stops, it just allows them to get into you even more. It turns into very fundamental things when a team’s being that aggressive on the ball
“… When someone’s aggressive like that, you have an opportunity,” he added. “… We have guys that can attack in those situations, and when we did attack, I didn’t think we were strong enough with the ball, and that’s where some of the turnovers came.”
In retrospect, Mitchell agreed, it stood out so obviously. Now, though, comes the challenge of being able to sort through all the peripheral noise (which there will undoubtedly be some of given the broader context of their return to OKC) and do something about it in the moment.
“Credit to them for coming out with that intensity — we just gotta be able to counter that, use their aggression against them,” he said.
JAZZ AT THUNDER
At Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
Tipoff • Monday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 1-1, Thunder 1-0
Last meeting • Thunder, 110-94 (Aug. 1)
About the Jazz • After going 18 of 50 on 3s in the season opener, Utah was just 10 of 34 from deep against Minnesota. … Conversely, the Jazz’s previously stellar perimeter defense allowed the Wolves to shoot 44.8% from deep on 29 attempts. … Top offensive options Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic shot combined 9 for 39 (23.1%).
About the Thunder • OKC has played just one game thus far because its scheduled season opener against Houston was postponed. … The Thunder wound up making their season debut on Friday, eking out a 109-107 win over the Hornets. … Shai Gilegeous-Alexander led the way in that win, totaling 24 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds.