Utah Jazz win, but still a work in progress
SALT LAKE CITY - After months of optimism about the team's offseason haul of new players, followed by weeks of preseason handwringing, the Utah Jazz finally rolled out the new squad for their much-anticipated season opener Wednesday night.
So, what did you think?
Well, if you still don't know what to make of this overhauled Jazz team, you can't be alone.
For the record, the Jazz beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is something they couldn't do against four NBA teams during the preseason. But for most of the night this wasn't the smooth-running, high-scoring, lock-down defensive team that was envisioned.
At the outset of the fourth quarter, they went on a 17-6 run to overtake the Thunder and then hung on down the stretch. Final score: 100-95. It was only in the fourth quarter, when Donovan Mitchell took charge, that the Jazz lived up to their billing, blocking shots, converting fast breaks and hitting a flurry of shots.
All this undoubtedly was cause for relief and celebration among Jazz watchers, but then we're reminded that a) the Jazz are notoriously slow starters under coach Quin Snyder and growing pains are almost certain in the next couple of months, especially with so many newcomers to work into the lineup; b) it's just the first step in a marathon, as illustrated by this story: Decades ago, Laker rookie Magic Johnson leaped into the arms of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after the latter made the game-winning shot at the buzzer. "Settle down," Jabbar told him, "we have 81 more games to go."
And c) it's too early to say what a win over Oklahoma City is worth. The Thunder are a team that has shed enough superstars the last six years to fill one wing of the Hall of Fame -Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, with surly Chris Paul set to leave soon.
Back to the Jazz. Not since the Stockton and Malone days have they begun a season with more optimism, thanks to offseason moves that brought in five quality players to build around Rudy Gobert, Mitchell and Joe Ingles. That made even the national media sit up and notice.
"It's going to be fun," Mike Conley said during the pregame shootaround. "There is a lot of opportunity. I've never played on such a complete team."
Then the Jazz went out and whiffed in the preseason.
"It just didn't feel right," said Gobert just hours before Wednesday's opener. "Maybe it's a good thing it happened in preseason. It makes us more focused and work harder."
The newcomers all had their moments Wednesday night, one way or another. Conley, the 13-year veteran point guard who averaged 21 points for Memphis last season, made just 1 of 16 shots, the lone field goal coming just seconds before the end of the third quarter. He made a pair of free throws with two seconds left in the game to finish with five points. After making the first free throw, he turned to the crowd and raised his arms with a sheepish grin, playfully acknowledging his poor night. It was a nice moment.
As hoped, Conley's ball-handling skills freed Mitchell to play his true position at off guard and he thrived. After a one-point first quarter, Mitchell finished with 32 points, 14 of them in the fourth quarter. He also had 12 rebounds.
Bojan Bogdanovic, after making a few dazzling drives to the basket early in the game, left the court in the first half with a sprained ankle, but returned eventually to finish with 16 points in 24 minutes of play. ("I was sick to my stomach when he went down," said Snyder.) Ed Davis, Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay came off the bench for 19 points combined,
Earlier in the day, Snyder clearly anticipated that the Jazz will have some difficult times as they integrate new players.
"(The details), that's what's important in anything you do," he said. "It's hard to get down in the details until you have some of the broad brush strokes, where guys are able to recognize the details and why they're important. ... We've got a lot of guys who are assimilating and they've embraced all those things, but there are things that are new. And then you can flip it and say it's still basketball. It's to that extent that our competitiveness and urgency can fill in until the habits and details continue to get better. That's where we are."
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