SALT LAKE CITY — Sequels are seldom better than the original, whether in books, movies or songs. But to the Jazz, this one was Oscar worthy.
After losing the first meeting with Golden State on a last-second tip in October, they held off a strong rally to win 108-103 on Wednesday. That put some ever-so-slight distance between themselves and last year’s team.
The 2017-18 Jazz floundered from mid-December to mid-January without Rudy Gobert. This year Gobert appears as healthy as a mountaineer. But their win-loss record?
You have to hand it to them: They know how to show off their best angle. All Wednesday’s win really proved was that the Jazz can get up for the good teams. Quin Snyder addressed that issue before the game when asked about hyper-focusing for big matchups.
“Sometimes in quote-unquote bigger games, it can go both ways,” he said.
Sometimes a team gets starry-eyed and “you lose focus.” Other times they’re dialed in.
The Jazz were a little bit of both Wednesday. Donovan Mitchell made two of three free throws with 1:37 to go. Then he missed a trey with 52 seconds remaining and the Jazz up by three. He dribbled the ball out of bounds. He made only five of 26 shots.
Still, 30 team assists — six above their average — were crucial. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio combined for 16 of them, which largely offset their awful combined shooting (5 for 34). Everyone pitched in. The Jazz bench outscored Golden State’s 39-17.
The Jazz can only beat supremely talented teams by swarming them.
Despite a sluggish start, it’s not too late for a strong season in Utah. Going into Wednesday’s game, the Jazz had the identical record (14-17) they had last year at this time. It must be baffling. When Snyder showed up for his customary pregame press conference, he said nothing for several beats, and no one asked a question.
“Ohhhhkay,” he said, suggesting someone should jump in.
How about this question: Does this team make you nervous?
The good news for the Jazz, aside from Wednesday's win, is they have already knocked out virtually half their road season. They’ve played 20 away games — 49 percent of their allotment, yet the season is only 38 percent complete.
In other words, a second-half surge similar to last year’s isn’t out of the question.
A year ago last Saturday, Derrick Favors rolled into Gobert’s knee, forcing the Frenchman into a 15-game absence. They went on to lose 11 of those. The shocker came in the rapid turnaround. After Gobert’s return, the Jazz went on an 11-game win streak and finished the year winning 30 of their last 38 games.
Could that happen again?
Snyder doesn’t want to find out.
He’d rather do the heavy lifting now.
This season, unreliable defense, unpredictable 3-point shooting and, yes, the absence of superstars have all figured into Utah’s mediocre record. But the biggest factor might have simply been the rough early-season schedule, widely regarded as the league’s most difficult.
Of the Jazz’s first 32 games, 21 have been against teams that are at or above the playoff watermark. The Jazz finished their night just two games behind eighth-place San Antonio, still within striking distance of playoff position.
So is practically everyone else.
Right now, the Jazz are the 12th-best team on the leaderboard. But that’s up two spots from where they were 24 hours earlier. They can’t afford to reach the midway point on Jan. 7 and say, “We’re only a couple games out of playoff position.”
Two games can be a continent away from success in the tightly bound Western Conference.
This win was a major step in avoiding that. Two other chances come Friday at Portland and Saturday against Oklahoma City.Comment on this story
Maybe the Jazz will stage another second-half surge when the schedule lightens, but other teams keep coming. Who knew Dallas and Sacramento would make a play for relevance and Denver would lead the conference?
There are six teams wedged between the 16th spot and the eighth. Numbers tell part of the story. The Jazz are 26th in 3-point percentage and, before Wednesday’s game, were tied for 28th in clutch wins (4-8).
What the Jazz lacked in shooting they made up for in passing against the Warriors. That’s how to beat them. You don’t outshoot them; you out-execute 'em.
Technique is everything in show business.