SALT LAKE CITY — The Jazz got back to their post-All-Star week business Friday at EnergySolutions Arena, looking just short of invincible. They were missing a talented Turkish center that wished his way onto the Oklahoma City roster, and a long-range shooter who had just recently been enlisted.
That left the team a bit thinner in the ranks, but it handled the drama well, beating Portland 92-76.
Rudy Gobert was in the starting lineup, a spot he earned fair and square. Gordon Hayward continued trending upward and Derrick Favors was looking like “31 Flavors Favors,” offering a bit of everything. Meanwhile, Trey Burke was hot off the bench, contributing 19 points.
Is this a better Jazz team than the one that lost six of its last nine games before the break?
Sure seemed like it.
It was third-place Portland, not the Jazz, that was tossing quick shots and wandering on defense. It’s no secret the Jazz went into the break with the same record as last season’s last-place team. At the same time, general manager Dennis Lindsey noted on Thursday that if you’re into analytics, they played a tougher first 53 games this year.
“Yeah, so we’ll see what next 30 games bring and we feel very good about our arc and our ability to go forward,” Lindsey said on Thursday.
He continued, “I’m very confident in this group, moving forward. You can look at it from an analytical standpoint, and on a points differential, we’ve played the second-toughest schedule in the league so far and will continue to play a tough schedule. I know a lot of you say you wish we were in the East, but I feel the exact opposite. I like the challenge of the West, because once we overcome the challenges of the West, we’ll know we have a contender, not a pseudo-contender.”
Lindsey has an arguable point. In the first 53 games this season, 33 opponents (62 percent) were in the playoff mix at the break. The rest of the way, they have just 14 (48 percent).
Last year the Jazz went 6-23 down the stretch after playing 31 games against playoff-bound teams in the first half.
So it’s true this year’s team has had a slightly tougher schedule.
It's also true it should have a slightly better record.
The Jazz played the game without All-Stars — Portland has two — but they didn’t look half bad. They out-hustled the Blazers, had just eight turnovers and out-rebounded them by 11. Meanwhile, they held Portland to 4-22 from 3-point range, showing no ill effects from the trade that sent Enes Kanter and Steve Novak to Oklahoma City.
“No numbers — just to get better, see how you improve through the season,” said forward Trevor Booker.
The best play of the game was a Booker block, which Gobert grabbed and — in the same motion — heaved the ball to a racing Booker, who dunked. However, it took them a few minutes to get going. The Jazz quickly fell behind but caught up by turning to defense. As the saying goes, the best offense is … one that has a couple of All-Stars. But the Jazz weren’t counting. Their vacation doldrums were over. Booker vacuumed up seven rebounds in his first 10 minutes.
The crowd got into a mood when Portland’s C.J. McCollum stole the ball and cruised in for a layup, only to be Rudely interrupted by Rudy. That, however, was Gobert’s best moment of the half. In the excitement of starting, he forgot his manners and picked up two fouls in the first four minutes. But he came back strong, finishing with seven rebounds and five blocks.
Meanwhile, the Jazz held Portland to its lowest total of the year.
“They were closing out hard on our shooters,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts.
While the Jazz won’t dominate the rest of the way, Friday’s win made a point: They might be good enough to trade a player like Kanter, yet not miss a beat.
“We need that collective effort. Whether it’s a 1- or a 30-point game, if we keep that mindset, we’re going to win a lot of games,” Burke said.
Coming off from vacation never seemed more appealing.
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