SALT LAKE CITY — There they were, in all their high-definition glory, the Jazz in a nutshell.
They didn’t win but they didn’t run and hide. They weren’t scared but they weren’t quite sure, either. Finding a money scorer remains a problem. So does executing down the stretch. Still, the Jazz opened the season Wednesday night coming close but not having enough to offset Kevin Durant’s 42 points. This was expected. What wasn’t expected was them to challenge the elite Oklahoma City Thunder (101-98).
Utah doesn’t have its go-to guy, and truth is it never will if it’s looking for someone like the incomparable Durant. But the Jazz’s likability factor is soaring. There were several chances down the stretch to take the lead but they never materialized. The Jazz were like kids with new driver licenses, peeling out, turning too sharply, stopping too late. One thrill after another, then the fender-bender.
“They’re learning,” coach Tyrone Corbin said. “We’ll get better.”
Another thing the Jazz have to deal with, besides youth, is players such as Durant. He was uncharacteristically ineffective from the field (9-for-24) but got 24 free throws, making 22. Yet the Jazz had their chances. The good news for them is that they nearly pulled it off.
In the final three minutes they won, lost and played to a stalemate. Gordon Hayward — the designated scorer this year — was just 4-for-13 from the field. He clanged a shot from the elbow, then missed the rim entirely. But he came back to draw a foul, making one out of two.
Yet he had a respectable three steals and four rebounds.
He did things, both good and bad.
Meanwhile, Alec Burks missed a layup with the Jazz down one at the 1-minute mark, but fueled them down the stretch. Derrick Favors powered in a shot but missed a pair of free throws (the Jazz missed 10 on the night) with 18.8 seconds remaining. Still the Jazz got the ball back. Burks hit two free throws with 11 seconds left, closing the Thunder lead to one. He dunked again five seconds later, again pulling them within one.
The Jazz had a chance to tie at the buzzer but Hayward missed from 3-point range.
“There were a lot of positives, a lot to build off of tonight. I thought the guys’ effort, for the most part, was pretty good,” Corbin said.
It seemed from the start that the Jazz had something cooking. When they ran out of the tunnel onto the court, virtually every player wore a smile of relief and/or anticipation. The preseason humdrum was over. The Jazz went at the Thunder as though unaware Oklahoma City could win a championship.
Clearly the Jazz aren’t wasting time getting into their mode. The unveiling of the new high-definition message board was, well, a revelation. It was bigger than life and twice as bright. You could read the score in Wendover.
The Jazz crafted a 7-point lead in the first quarter, largely by going low to Favors and Enes Kanter, who proceeded to dunk with authority. Nothing screamed “future” like the second-quarter run when the Jazz fell behind 38-33 but quickly came back. Burks, who led the team with 24 points, made a double-clutching drive. That was followed by a Favors bucket that drew a foul. Although he missed the bonus, the ball was tipped back to John Lucas III, who promptly made — what else? — a III.
Favors had a nice line for the night: 15 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks.
Up in Row 13, Jerry Sloan looked on approvingly.
He once had a power forward who did that stuff.
Kanter had 14 points and 10 rebounds.
For all the talk of the Jazz’s youth movement, that’s all it was until tipoff. But for much of the night the Jazz gave their fans a glimpse at what team management envisioned. Still a couple hall of famers shy of Sloan’s old teams, the 2013-14 Jazz did show a toughness that harks back to the franchise’s salad days.
Do the Jazz have their go-to shooter? Not yet. But they do have the attitude. That alone was enough on the first night to keep people watching.
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