It felt like old times at the Delta Cent … err, at Vivint Arena on Sunday night, at least at certain junctures it did, and not recent old times. We’re talking ancient old times, old times with which only those with a mess of rings around their trunks and creases etched into their faces would be familiar.
The Jazz, favored despite the absence of Donovan Mitchell, playing host to a playoff opponent in the first game of the first round in front of a pumped-up, raucous home crowd, a crowd filled not so much with a vague kind of hope their team would win, as in more modern years, rather anticipation, no, expectation that it would happen, just like … well, the old days.
If C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” had been played, I swear, it would have been the ’90s, again.
And then, after it was asserted that Mitchell’s bum ankle was not ready, at least not according to docs and trainers, even though he had said hours earlier that he would play, something else went berserk, namely, the Jazz’s shooting, their defense and the final numbers on the board. That count suggested as much: Grizzlies 112, Jazz 109.
Don’t want to necessarily hang this loss on the medical staff, but it seemed clear that the Jazz thought they could win without Mitchell, and Memphis thought the Jazz thought that, too, playing with a major chip, as though they had been disrespected by Utah.
Either way, after a furious Jazz comeback in the wake of some horrendous overall team play, Bojan Bogdanovic somehow, some way, had a chance to tie it up in the final seconds with a 3-pointer, but that desperation heave missed wide left.
Disappointment here, there, everywhere.
And a collective kind of wonder as to when Mitchell will be back.
“I was happy that we fought and gutted it out,” Quin Snyder said afterward. “We all know we have to play better.”
Yes and yes.
So it was that a Jazz team that had apparent advantages, even without their star guard, coming in — talent, rest, the home court, alleged determination, against an opponent that was required to thrash about, winning two tight play-in games, including a wicked one on Friday night at Golden State — could not find its footing or balance, or its form as regular-season champions, unable to back up its intentions for extending its reach toward something more.
At the end, the only good part about the whole deal was this: Basketball was the thing again, not a pandemic, although precautions were still in place among the more than 13,000 fans on hand, which seemed in number and in saturated enthusiasm at the start like the bygone standard of 19,911.
There were early and late moments when it sounded as though the building’s roof might blow off, but, ultimately, silence — and failure — reigned.
The Jazz, supposedly all rested, if not fully rehabbed, coming into the postseason having garnered that No. 1 seed in the West, played like a team with bad aim and bad precision, not bad intentions. Their plans for doing more than just surviving the first round in these playoffs have now been thrust into some doubt.
Inside of a single game, the Jazz sagged from a long-ago pristine playoff past to a much more abbreviated recent one, in which the sledding has been rough.
The ride was mostly bumpy on Sunday night.
There was a lot of attention paid to the Jazz’s two All-Stars (outside of Mitchell), Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, a million eyes looking for evidence that the duo, along with Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson, actually could put on a playoff performance that portended greater things ahead.
They did not. Bogdanovic got hot late, scoring 29 points, but by then, the Jazz’s hole was too deep.
[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]
The Grizzlies’ defense focused on interrupting catch-and-shoots from distance, willing to give up the 3 off the dribble, and the Jazz couldn’t effectively take and make enough of such shots. In total, they hit 12 of 47 deep attempts (25 percent), 34 of 81 overall.
“If the ball’s not going in,” said Snyder, “we just have to be more efficient and more locked in.”
They weren’t enough of either.
Gobert, challenged in this opening series by a rugged and righteous matchup with Memphis big Jonas Valanciunas, labored to achieve what Gobert usually does, getting 15 boards, 11 points, and a share of dissuasions for the Grizz not to attack the basket on drives, an inconvenience for them because of their preference for the 2-point shot.
But they created and converted enough.
Dillon Brooks had his way with Jazz defenders, going for 31 points and about 15 taunts.
Ja Morant, the young Grizz point guard who has nearly perfected the floating squib shot as he moves into the paint also was tough to control, totaling 26 points on an assortment of attempts.
The Jazz’s flip to that was Conley, the point guard who came to Utah before last season mostly because his longtime former team was willing to give him up on account of it having identified and circled Morant in the draft. He was their future. Conley was their past.
Right now, Conley is their present, an obstacle coming at them from a different direction.
The Conley-Morant comparative-narrative is bound to become a major story in this series. And it already has.
Jazz fans may or may not fully understand how connected to Memphis Conley was before becoming such an important part of the Jazz. He was, in many ways, Mr. Memphis, playing a large role not only in the Grizzlies’ success during his time there, but also just being Mike, donating time and money to charitable causes around that community.
He is still beloved there, but he’s Utah’s now, and the Jazz needed him on Sunday night to counter the abilities, at least in part, of his replacement. He ended up scoring 22 points on 6-for-18 shooting, with 11 assists and 2 turnovers.
As is often the case in the playoffs, Utah-Memphis, despite the combined collection of talent among the teams, is destined to be a nasty, physical affair. It was in Game 1, during which sweat flowed and bodies and insults and technicals flew. The Grizzlies sport the sixth-rated defense in the NBA, as the Jazz were rated fourth at that end. Memphis ranked fourth in rebounding, the Jazz first.
The Grizzlies ranked second in offensive boards, and that’s something the Jazz will have to focus on moving forward, boxing and boxing and boxing out. On Sunday, Memphis collected 43 rebounds, 17 offensive. The Jazz had 50 and 12.
No rebounds, no rings.
Just like … you know, back when Karl Malone was collecting them instead of Gobert.
Even as a quaint sort of nostalgia initially emerged, it was the Grizzlies who wound up punching the Jazz in the mouth, gaining a lead in the first half that endured throughout. Both teams wanted to get out and run when they could, and the Grizzlies did so more efficiently.
Some differences between the Jazz and the Grizz were evident here, too.
Memphis ranked first in the league in steals — in Game 1, the Grizzlies had 12 and the Jazz ranked second-to-last — in Game 1, they had three.
And on attack, Memphis ranked 23rd in 3-pointers taken, the Jazz were first. On Sunday night, the Grizz made 7 of 20 bombs, while Utah clanked away.
Surprisingly, the Jazz simply couldn’t take care of their business in this, their first playoff game on their home floor in more than two years. Turned out, things weren’t much different now than they were the last time around, short of the short-circuited expectations, everybody anticipating back then that Houston would dispense with the underdog Jazz.
They are ‘dogs of a sort once more, having yielded home-court advantage now.
Same as it was in the bubble in October after their opening loss.
The Jazz are fully aware they had an edge in this first game, even without Mitchell, beyond talent, Memphis having worked its way through mental and physical fatigue just to get here. They also know they will be required to play with more refinement and execution, more force and focus, in the postseason days ahead, of which they had planned on there being many.
Now, nobody’s quite so sure.
And that question hangs over them still: When will Mitchell return?
A game that commenced with the playoff excitement and anticipation of 1997 and 1998 ended with the doubt and uncertainty of 2019 and 2020.
Just how open is the Jazz playoff road ahead?
Suddenly, the loud sounds of that old song from C+C Music Factory in your ears has grown a bit faint.
“Everybody dance now.”
Hardly, not with a sore ankle yet unhealed, or at least not yet permitted to play.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.