In my Monday article, I wrote Mike Harris into a joke including the term “seedy cow.” The “cow” comment attempted self-deprecating humor, but I must apologize for even associating this type of pejorative anywhere near Harris.
The man was a monster Wednesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. I loved how he played. Every member of Jazz Nation wants Harris to play this type of monstrous ball every single night.
Among the things I liked most about Harris' performance was when he tried to laugh away questions in the post-game interviews. I think he was honestly shocked that, 1) He was being interviewed, and 2) The questions did not come through a translator.
I know how hard talking through a translator is. I lived in Asia (specifically, South Korea) for eight years. Translators try hard, but sometimes statements go sideways. Harris has got to be celebrating clean(er) air, hamburgers, French fries and simply playing in the NBA.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday, Harris dogged Kevin Durant as much as he could. Durant ran away with 42 points, but Durant earned those points and faced continual challenges on his shots. Harris used his six fouls effectively, adding 13 points and two steals.
Unfortunately, Durant went to the dang-I-got-one-up-on-the-defense line 24 times and hit 22 of those freebies, converting 91.7 percent of his free throws. Durant is too good to go to the line that many times. When NBA referees are charged with the duty of protecting superstars, and when a young team plays one such star hard, the star will go to the line and will go often.
Durant makes his free throws, however. This why hack-a-Shaq worked and why hack-a-Durant doesn’t.
Here is the hurt line: The Jazz played a physical game, resulting in Durant's free throws. The Jazz turned the ball over 22 times. The Thunder had 15 steals. Gordon Hayward sat out most of the second quarter.
If there is a single issue that killed the Jazz, that issue is Hayward sitting on the bench for an extended amount of time.
That can not happen.
Hayward is the floor commander whether he has the ball in his hands or not, and the opposing team has to respect him. When Hayward is getting splinters from the bench, the other team can take advantage of a weaker lineup. The second quarter was a nightmare; the Thunder outscored the Jazz 28-19.
NBA.com’s Andrew Aragon explains how Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks adjusted to a Hayward-less Jazz, writing:
“Oklahoma City's defensive effort greatly improved between the first and second quarters, and it proved to be one of the keys of the game. After allowing 29 points in the first, the Thunder held the Jazz to 19 points in the second quarter. Utah shot 47.6 percent in the first quarter, but didn't reach that percentage in a quarter the rest of the game.”
Hayward has to play longer than 26.5 minutes. He must clock 36 or more minutes just to keep the other team honest, holding the game close enough to win down the stretch.
Here are the two light-bright-shine-all-night aspects of the game:
First, Alec Burks had a tremendous game with 24 points and six assists. When I watched the game for the second time on DVR, I was still cheering. He can score and slide assists to the guys working hard on defense. NBA.com has great video of one of those assists. Burks will be a great sixth man instant-offensing every game.
Second, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert controlled the paint all night. Favors played for 41.9 minutes and Kanter and Gobert combined for 51.9 minutes. The Jazz played rough-and-tumble defense, forcing the offensive burden on to the Thunder’s superstar.
Normally, this is an effective strategy. Last night, only two other Thunder players scored double digits. Durant accounted for 40 percent of the Thunder offense. The Jazz front court played hard and gritty, and other Durant-less NBA teams will struggle against this kind of relentless defense.
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Finally, I do not believe in first-game-of-the-year moral victories. The NBA regular season is a war. Maybe when the Jazz make the playoffs and lose a hard one to an overwhelming opponent, I will grant a moral victory. Not right now.
The Jazz are going to tie up their sneakers, throw their gear on the bus and take some heat down to Phoenix on Friday at 8 p.m. I hope they play just as hard, and I hope someone scuffs Jeff Hornacek’s shiny head coach shoes while they're there.