SALT LAKE CITY — The San Antonio Spurs pulled out all the old tricks Tuesday at EnergySolutions Arena. The moan-at-the-refs. The flap-and-flop. The double-death stare. The late-game rally. Coach Gregg Popovich even got himself tossed on technicals for good measure.
But it still wasn’t enough.
The Jazz ended a nine-game losing streak with a 100-96 win. There they go again, tantalizing the true believers. Bring in the NBA champion Spurs or the widely acclaimed Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Jazz are looking prime. But give them Sacramento or Orlando, Indiana or Denver and the wheels come off.
So here they are, more than a quarter through the season and it’s going to get weird. One win, even against the Spurs, doesn’t make up for lost ground. In a way, it only accentuates it.
They did this sometimes last year, too, dangling a carrot and then pulling back.
“It’s just growth,” said forward Derrick Favors.
But so far, this has been the mode for the still-learning Jazz: Show up for the grand opening but take a break during the digging.
As happy as the win made coach Quin Snyder, he must at times be grinding his teeth. His team can soar with the eagles but also wallow with the pigs.
Snyder’s response: Stick with them. They’re getting there. He just wishes Jazz fans would please put away their stopwatches.
Last year’s 57-loss result was excruciating for fans, the worst in Utah since Jeff Wilkins and Ben Poquette inhabited the paint. The last two weeks gave way to a curious numbness.
“The picture for us is a big picture,” Snyder told Salt Lake beat reporters on Monday.
Good thing for them they finally got a snapshot from a different angle.
What kind of a future the Jazz have is still the question. When they broke up the Al Jefferson-Paul Millsap group after the 2012-13 season, it was clear they were taking a chance. But management knew their ceiling with the old group: an annual one-and-done playoff appearance.
So they started over with kids, and lots of them. Favors, Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter gave way to Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Trey Burke. Last year’s horrendous 1-14 start developed into to this year’s 5-16 launch. Going into Tuesday’s game, the Jazz were only one game better than last year’s pace.
They lost to a changing Dallas, a weak Sacramento and an Oklahoma City with its liver and kidneys removed.
Yet Tuesday they arrived looking conspicuously feisty. They blocked five Spurs shots and traded baskets throughout the first half. But the Spurs were crafty as ever. With the Jazz up by one, Tim Duncan took an entry pass with his back to the basket. He didn’t turn around, didn’t fake either. He just flipped a no-look shot over his head. Favors recovered in time to take a swat at the ball but was whistled for goaltending.
It was a move Duncan wouldn’t have considered back when he was young and locomotives were new.
But the other really old Spur, Manu Ginobili (37), didn’t fare as well. He missed 14 of 17 shots and had four turnovers. Even so, he got eight assists and two steals.
That’s the Spurs: Even when they’re bad, they’re good.
The Jazz led by 10 with a 1 ½ minutes to go, but by four with 30 seconds remaining. However, the Spurs couldn’t convert shots and the Jazz got enough from the line.
If there’s hope that the Jazz will ever rise even to playoff level in the unforgiving Western Conference, it’s in Snyder, who seems to have a nice sense of when to shout and when to soothe. On Monday at Sacramento he pulled Rudy Gobert from the game, but not to punish him for a missed assignment. Instead, he spoke calmly to the 7-foot Frenchman and then sent him right back out.
As Jerry Sloan used to say (but didn’t always employ): You can catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar.
Sloan was just as likely to catch them with a boot in the pants.
Tuesday marked this year’s first game against the Spurs, who are conducting their under-the-radar business as usual. Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Tony Parker sat out with injuries. This is the team that might sit its starters and pick its spots. Then playoffs come and they’re as lethal as arsenic.
Thus things went on Tuesday. The Jazz turned on the charm with good defensive rotation, strong rebounding and prudent shot selection. Their growth plan is a grand one. All they need to do now is pay attention when they come back to earth.
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