SALT LAKE CITY — Considering one game is the smallest of sample sizes — 1.22 percent of an 82-game schedule, if we’re going to break out our calculators — it’s difficult to know exactly what to take away from the Utah Jazz’s season-opening win.
The Deseret News only allows us to break out of the time-traveling DeLorean for special occasions, so we’ll have to go with what we have and evaluate Quin Snyder’s squad based on those 48 minutes of play.
Here are several things we learned about the team from their season-opening 106-96 victory:
• First, the $125 million seems to have been well spent — and we’re talking about the Vivint Arena renovations, not the $110 million the team will fork out for players' salaries this season. The arena is more aesthetically pleasing (from the J-note statue to the dark blue seats and dazzling displays), more comfortable (cushioned seats FTW), much more modern (the atrium, suites and new observation spots are nice) and every seat has a cup holder, so what more could you ask for?
• Defense will again be this team’s calling card. You wouldn’t have thought that in the first half when the Nuggets seemingly scored at will, putting up 58 points on 56.3 percent shooting.
When it counted most, though, the Jazz were as stingy and stifling as everyone thought they would be. Denver only made five of 15 shots in the fourth quarter and put up a mere 13 points.
Snyder specifically pointed out the second-half contributions of Ekpe Udoh, Thabo Sefolosha and Alec Burks.
“Those three guys were terrific,” Snyder said, later lofting some praise out for Derrick Favors. “I think we were persistent defensively. We talked about the defensive identity. Denver, they’re a terrific offensive club. That’s a really, really good team — incredibly explosive. I thought we obviously improved defensively as the game went on.”
• Without Gordon Hayward to lead the scoring efforts, the offense will probably come from different guys on different nights. For a while in the first half, it appeared that the Jazz might have about 10 guys average eight points a night and nothing else. Then Joe Ingles stepped up and scored 11 by halftime.
Things got interesting in the second half as multiple players picked up their offensive games.
Center Rudy Gobert dunked his way to a team-high 18 points (on 7-of-9 shooting). Alec Burks reminded everybody that he’s still on the roster with a wild second-half spree that saw him hit two 3-pointers and make an athletic “Houdini” reverse layup en route to 16 points. Favors (14), Joe Johnson (13) and rookie Donovan Mitchell (10) also hit double figures and provided offensive oomph when needed.
Who’s going to lead this team in scoring? Who knows and, really, who cares as long as they get that kind of shared production combined with defense.
“The points may come from different places every night. We just want to score,” Snyder said. “However the guys are generating them and however the game unfolds, we have to be opportunistic on who attacks and who scores and try to find the core of the guys that have advantages. They have to do that collectively.”
• New point guard Ricky Rubio’s ability to pass is even more impressive than his flowing hair. The playmaker, whom the Jazz traded for this offseason, finished with 10 assists, which is something no Utah point guard accomplished last year.
His best pass was on a play that didn’t even result in a basket.
Snyder liked what he saw on the court from Rubio — calling his Jazz debut “good” — but he really appreciated what the Spanish player did after Burks scored during Utah’s surge. As Burks exited the court, Rubio rushed to midcourt to meet him for a chest bump.
“There was a leadership component. I thought we saw some emotion out of him during the crucial point of the game. I think that helped our team to see that, to see him,” Snyder said. “He’s not a quiet guy, but he’s reserved in a lot of ways. To see that come out, that passion, that’s what I want from him.
“I think if he gives us that and he competes, he’s doing his job, he’ll lead the team, he’ll make plays and he’ll hit shots. To be aggressive is what I want to see him do and to lead, and he did that tonight.”
Rubio finished with nine points on 3-of-9 shooting (1-for-5 from deep), but Snyder liked that he only had three turnovers in 32 minutes. He also had two steals.
• Mitchell gave himself a C- for his first NBA game, which got off to a quicker start than anyone expected because of Rodney Hood’s pre-tipoff bout with gastric distress. Snyder liked that he played off the ball as a shooting guard to begin the game and then filled in nicely as the backup point guard — Utah’s without point guards Dante Exum (shoulder) and Raul Neto (hamstring) — during the major momentum shift in the third and fourth quarters.
Snyder credited Mitchell’s competitiveness after the rookie finished with 10 points and four assists in his debut. As a compliment to the Louisville guard, the Jazz coach compared him to Favors, who also had a strong outing.
“Derrick Favors competed like crazy tonight. You could feel him in the game. He just battled,” Snyder said. “I think our guys really respect that about each other. It’s infectious. I thought that’s what we saw from Donovan tonight. He just battled.”
• The bench was the most impressive aspect of the Jazz on Wednesday, including big man Ekpe Udoh, who spent the past two seasons grinding away on defense in Europe and who plays like he wants every opponent to know he belongs in the NBA. Udoh’s defense was critical in the Jazz comeback, which included a 20-3 run to open the game-changing fourth quarter.
While he was on the floor for 13 minutes, Utah outscored Denver by a whopping 24 points. Sefolosha (plus-25 in 21 minutes) and Mitchell (plus-22 in 26 minutes) also cleaned up in that category.
New Denver power forward Paul Millsap — remember him? — was asked about the Jazz’s comeback.6 comments on this story
“Not sure,” he said. “They turned it up, we didn’t. For three quarters we did an amazing job on both ends of the court offensively and defensively. We did what we wanted to do, and toward the end of the third quarter and fourth quarter we fell apart.”
As we’ve learned throughout the course of this season, the Jazz defense has a tendency of doing that to its opponents. (OK, fine. We'll see if the same thing can be said Friday night after Rubio returns to his NBA roots in Minnesota and the sample size is two games instead of one.)
In the meantime, enjoy this, Jazz fans.