B-Team? JV squad? Completely depleted Utah Jazz prove shockingly competitive in loss to Raptors

Despite missing all five starters and eight of their top nine rotation players, the Jazz lead for most of the way in Toronto, then claim afterward their ability to do that was no surprise at all.

Utah Jazz forward Eric Paschall (0) prepares to shoot from between Toronto Raptors forward Justin Champagnie, left, and center Khem Birch during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

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Toronto • It seemed like it would be an amusing footnote afterward to point out that, when Elijah Hughes made a 3-pointer just 1 minute and 18 seconds into Friday’s game, the ridiculously short-handed Utah Jazz actually held a lead at one time against the almost-full-strength Raptors.

Crazy thing is, that 3-2 advantage soon became 6-2. And 11-5. And 18-7. and 26-11. And 40-25. And 58-41. You get the point.

With no Rudy Gobert. No Donovan Mitchell. No Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, or Rudy Gay, either.

Despite sitting out all five starters and eight of their top nine rotation regulars for the zero-fans game at Scotiabank Arena, the widely-expected blowout never actually materialized. Yes, the wheels eventually came off, and Utah’s 10-game road winning streak was erased in a 122-108 defeat.

Still …

“I was really pleased and proud of the guys who were out there tonight and how they competed,” Quin Snyder would say afterward.

Yeah, that’s an understated way to put it.

Thing is, no one on the team was particularly giddy afterward, despite perhaps having every right to be.

Never mind that all the main guys besides Hassan Whiteside and Trent Forrest were out, either due to COVID-19 protocols, or not wanting to risk guys testing positive and having to quarantine in Canada, or simply recognizing the short-handedness Friday and thus wanting to save guys for the end of the back-to-back Saturday in Indianapolis.

Never mind that after surrendering the first basket of the game, the Jazz didn’t trail again until a Fred VanVleet runner made it 85-84 with 2:16 left in the third quarter.

And never mind that, despite rolling with a once-unthinkable starting five of Whiteside, Forrest, Eric Paschall, Elijah Hughes, and Jared Butler, and a bench of consisting of Udoka Azubuike, Malik Fitts, and recent 10-day signees Danuel House and Norvel Pelle, the Jazz didn’t even trail by double-digits until there was but 7:16 remaining in the game.

It’s all pretty ludicrous, that.

But the Jazz were still disappointed by the result.

“We didn’t come out with the win, which I really wanted,” said Butler, the highly-precocious but little-used rookie guard who totaled 17 points and four assists (admittedly against eight turnovers) in 31:36 of action.

Certainly, none of them seemed surprised that they managed to make the game so competitive for so long.

Either that, or they feigned equanimity exceedingly well.

“We’re all NBA players, so it’s our job to go out there and play basketball,” said Paschall, who scored 17 of his 29 points in the first quarter. “So we just went out there and competed, played free. … But we’re all here for a reason.”

“It’s just the beauty of being a pro — you gotta be ready for whatever,” added Hughes, who racked up 26 points on 9-for-15 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals. “I knew coming into Canada that we’d be short pretty much our whole rotation, so I’d be playing a big chunk of minutes. And I just got myself prepared.”

The Jazz certainly came out looking prepared — hitting 15 of 28 overall and 7 of 13 from deep (including a buzzer-beater from halfcourt by Fitts), while limiting Toronto to just 9 of 25 themselves in the first quarter. It goes without saying the Raptors were stunned to find they’d just surrendered 40 points and were trailing by 15 to that group after the game’s initial dozen minutes.

House, though, who got a very weird introduction to his new team, noted he wasn’t taken aback at all, because even in his short time with Utah, he witnessed professional preparation from everyone involved.

“Everybody in this league can play. Even if they don’t play 32 minutes, 10 minutes, five minutes — everybody in this league that’s on a roster can play,” he said. “So I’m not surprised about none of that. Those guys have worked really hard to get where they’re at, and the coaching staff has been making sure that they were doing everything they needed to be prepared for this moment.”

Nevertheless, a loss is a loss. Snyder would subsequently lament the struggles with defensive rebounding in the first half that yielded too many extra possessions, and a dearth of transition defense that enabled easy buckets after the break.

“Some of that’s eight guys [being out], some of that’s the mental toughness to get to the next play,” he said.

Really, the only acknowledgements from anyone that anything was at all out of the ordinary came from the rookie Butler (who admitted to some “crazy, weird circumstances” that were “very different” and “weird”), and Snyder grudgingly conceding, “We’re asking a lot of a group that really hasn’t played together.”

The coach would ultimately go a little further. Asked if there was anything of use to be gleaned from such a bizarre one-off, he conceded that even if there’s a stated expectation that little-used guys be ready when their opportunity eventually comes, it’s still satisfying to see it actually play out, especially under such dramatic circumstances.

“You always find out about players. The hard thing is, a rotation can’t be 12 guys. There’s not a team in the league that plays that way,” Snyder said. “… [But] there’s always situations that guys can step into. It’s difficult, you can’t predict ‘em. But the ability to stay focused and stay ready for when those opportunities come — they came for a lot of guys tonight.”