Yes, the Jazz and Thunder finally were able to tip off Monday night in Oklahoma City.
Utah pulling out a hard-fought 110-109 victory after that was just a bonus.
Donovan Mitchell scored Utah’s final 12 points, including the game-winning runner with 7 seconds left, Bojan Bogdanovic bounced back from another atrocious shooting start to finish with 23 points, Mike Conley approached a triple-double by posting 20 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, and Rudy Gobert — the NBA’s so-called “Patient Zero” — contributed 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocks.
And while the result was a welcome one, as it put the Jazz at 2-1 on the young season, it was the teams’ previously scheduled matchup in Oklahoma City that dominated the day.
The last time the Jazz and Thunder were slated to face off in OKC, back on March 11, Gobert became the first player in the NBA to test positive for COVID-19, setting off a chaotic chain of events that resulted in the teams walking off the court, the game being postponed, and the league shutting down for months.
So Utah’s long-awaited return to Oklahoma for their third game of the 2020-21 regular season wound up putting members of both teams in a bit of a reflective mood — whether they wanted to be or not.
“You walk into the hotel, you walk into the arena, you can’t help but have some of those those memories, those visions,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
“… You can’t help but remember that evening — it was significant for both teams, really for the league,” he added. “But also the contrast between that point and where we are now, the season, the hiatus, the bubble, coming back and playing again — it seems like a lifetime since that happened.”
Gobert, asked after the game if returning, playing well and ultimately coming out victorious exorcised any demons for him, coolly said that while there was some strangeness in being back — especially to the same hotel where he spent many nervous hours nine months ago — his focus this time was squarely on the end result.
“Once we got in the basketball game, it’s just basketball. I was just trying to be focused on getting the win,” Gobert said. “The one thing was, of course, it was a bit different being back at the same hotel; obviously, you have all the memories coming back. So it’s little bit of a weird atmosphere, but I’m happy that we were able to come back and get a win.”
Mitchell also called the overriding emotion of being back “Weird, I guess,” even while agreeing with Snyder in that the last trip to Oklahoma wasn’t foremost on their minds heading into this one. Still, it couldn’t help but be unavoidable in some respects.
“I don’t think we harped on it. You know, it’s kind of just like a moment where you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going back to the same hotel.’ I had the same room, believe it or not, which is ironic,” Mitchell said. “But I think just with the no fans and everything, it’s a moment you have, a moment in time and you realize that it’s kind of crazy.
“I’ve said this before — this is the same year. It’s still the same year [as] all that,” he added. “And it feels like it was forever ago.”
Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault — who was an assistant with the team last season — said he “hadn’t thought of it” until a reporter reminded him, though it didn’t take much to open the floodgates from that point on.
What stood out most to him was also how different everything is now from then, and how the country’s collective lack of knowledge about the coronavirus at the time shaped the reaction to the Gobert news.
“It’s interesting to think back on it — there was a lot of confusion at the time, and uncertainty. It was when the virus was just starting to gain steam in our country. And obviously that game was the first domino, and a lot of other things got knocked over as a result of that experience,” Daigneault said. “Looking back on it, it’s a little surreal, it’s a little eerie, because obviously this has been a really tough time in our society and our world, in the country, for a lot of people.”
Snyder expressed gratitude that the NBA is back, that he and the Jazz emerged from the situation relatively unscathed — especially relative to so many others who’ve not been so lucky. While he expressed disdain at how Gobert was “vilified,” he also noted that the situation at least spawned some greater understanding and better perspective.
And that, really, was the ultimate context in which he sought to frame the Jazz’s return — that while what occurred was not ideal, in the grand scheme of things, Gobert getting diagnosed with COVID-19 in Oklahoma City really wasn’t the catastrophe it seemed at the time.
“I won’t call it PTSD because it’s not that extreme, but certainly there’s memories. … [But] nobody’s feeling sorry for themselves in that. You look back, there’s so many more challenging things that have happened since then,” Snyder said. “… So we come out of these things, and I think all of us have so much greater an appreciation for what we consider to be normal life.”