SACRAMENTO — It was just the second game of the 2021-22 season and the Utah Jazz faced a tough test, the results of which might benefit them throughout the rest of the NBA calendar.
In Sacramento on Friday night for the Kings’ home opener, in an arena that was full for the first time since the NBA shutdown in March of 2020, the Jazz had the kitchen sink thrown at them by a team that was motivated by more than just their crowd.
Not only was the crowd raucous, but the Kings came in wanting to prove they are not the team the Jazz have become used to facing. In the teams’ last two meetings, both at the tail end of the 2020-21 season, the Jazz won by 49 points and then 23 points. Both games were played without Mitchell, who was sidelined with an ankle injury.
This time, the Kings were coming off a season-opening win on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers, and second-year guard Tyrese Haliburton and rookie Davion Mitchell both executed the Kings’ game plan to near perfection.
The Jazz defense is more willing to allow midrange shots, so Haliburton took over from within while Buddy Hield knocked down shots from the outside, Davion Mitchell made life as hard as possible for Donovan Mitchell, defending at a level well beyond what is expected of a rookie, and Harrison Barnes sailed to an easy 25 points while crashing the boards.
“Throughout the year this might go down as, I wouldn’t say one of our best, but one of our biggest wins because of our perseverance,” Donovan Mitchell said after the 110-101 win over Sacramento. “It was a playoff atmosphere, home opener, they’re coming out aggressive.”
Added to the equation was that the Kings were prepared to run the soles off their shoes to keep the pace of the game at a high level, and the Jazz were without Joe Ingles after he was ejected from the game when he was issued a Flagrant 2 foul at the end of the first quarter.
“This is a big win because I’m not sure if we win this game — with the way we played — I’m not sure if we win it last year,” Mitchell said.
It definitely wasn’t perfect. The Jazz were out of sorts and didn’t have control of the game through the first half and the early going of the third quarter. They weren’t moving the ball, they were getting caught being careless and they weren’t defending at nearly the level they needed to.
The thing that Mitchell realized after it was all said and done and the Jazz had improved to 2-0 on the young season was that they were able to recognize their mistakes in real time and slowly chip away and correct themselves.
It didn’t take a next-day film session. They players knew what was wrong and found ways to counter what the Kings were throwing at them.
“We were sped up early, not really falling into our actions,” Mitchell said. “For us to correct ourselves throughout the game midgame and on the floor — not during a timeout, not during halftime — in the moment, I think that’s one thing that really stood out to me in our play.”
The Jazz were surprised by the physicality of the Kings, a team that had been an easy opponent in the past, and they were a little caught off guard by how much physicality the officials were allowing.
But the slow and steady adjustments were something that Jazz head coach Quin Snyder noticed as well.
“I thought we got stronger and tougher as the game went on, adjusting to the way the game was being called,” Snyder said. “A gritty win, particularly given the fact that we played without Joe...and Rudy (Gobert) and Donovan got better as the game went on. They were at their best in the fourth quarter.”
Prior to the fourth quarter though, when the stars of the team took control and extended a winning lead, the Jazz were trailing and needed to gain the upper hand. They got exactly what they needed from the lineup of Gobert, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Eric Paschall and two-way guard Trent Forrest, the players who were on the court to close the third quarter and gave the Jazz their first lead since Ingles’ ejection in the opening frame.
“We’re not used to all playing together as a unit in that group, especially in a game like that,” Conley said of that third quarter lineup. “It was cool to see us kind of take a step in a situation that was hostile. Things weren’t going as smoothly as we would have liked throughout the game and we were able to find it with those five guys.”
Learning on the fly is not something that the Jazz want to do when they’re playing in April and hopefully beyond, but to be able to take a game that looked like it was heading south and to be able to turn things around down a main rotation player with new lineups and strong challenges around every corner is a lesson that the Jazz can take with them as the season continues.
Fighting through a game like that in October, and having the evidence that what they did worked, at the very least will be motivating and encouraging as the Jazz grind through the next 80 games of the regular season.