There are some night’s in the NBA when a regular-season game just has a little extra juice.
It’s not a playoff game or one that will have playoff implications, but when all the right buttons are pushed, the atmosphere changes in an arena and it just feels like a postseason bout.
That’s what happened on Sunday night at the Delta Center during the Utah Jazz’s 123-108 comeback win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The game had all the components that make up a game that feels like it is outside of the regular season.
It’s rare that these intense games are between teams at the bottom of their respective conferences. Typically, one of the most necessary elements of a special game is that at least one of the teams involved is star-studded and at the top of their game.
The Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard-led Milwaukee Bucks fit the bill perfectly.
“Milwaukee is one of the better teams in the league. They’ve got big-name guys,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “When when the big-name teams and the big-name players come to town, there’s always an added buzz in the arena.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Jazz also recently beat the Bucks in Milwaukee, but with Lillard sidelined. So there is a component of the Bucks wanting to get revenge, but on the other side the Jazz wanting to prove it wasn’t a fluke that they beat one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Antetokounmpo is a global star and one of the best players in the NBA. He is going to have fans in any market, including Utah. But on top of that, the Jazz faithful are also very familiar with a number of the players on the Bucks roster.
“There was no shortage of love during the starting lineups for their entire team,” Hardy said. “I understand, Jae (Crowder), I understand Malik (Beasley), I understand Dame, going to Weber State. I was a little blown away by the ovation that Giannis got, but that’s the type of player that he is. Everybody loves him. He’s an international superstar.”
That familiarity gives the fans more insight into the nuances of the game and what to expect from players.
Then comes the fun stuff.
Altercations, trash talk, hard fouls, flagrant fouls, chippiness and everything in between.
There was a little bit physicality and back-and-forth between players early in the game, but at the 1:10 mark in the second quarter the Jazz got the fuel they needed to come out in the second half with a different kind of resolve.
Collin Sexton drove hard from the left corner, straight at Antetokounmpo, hitting the Bucks star with his elbow on the way in. The contact was waived off and as Antetokounmpo fell to the floor, Sexton went in to score at the rim. After he finished, Sexton flexed over Antetokounmpo and talked a little bit.
Watching the interaction from across the court, it seemed that Beasley took offense to the situation and ran the width of the floor to body check Sexton.
The players were separated and the play reviewed. Both Sexton and Beasley were issued technical fouls.
“That’s where our momentum shifted,” Walker Kessler said. “Collin’s a fiery player … and I’m sure as a fan, he’s awesome to watch. I know I love watching him. So when he gets going like that we all get into it and the fans get into it. So it’s a lot of fun.”
The Jazz went into the locker room at half time trailing by 10 points. They knew that they needed more and used the competitive spirit of the game to fuel them in the second half.
“That definitely can stir the gym up a little bit, and that moment kind of sparked everybody,” Hardy said. “When they got tied up and the refs run out there and split them up like yeah, it does change the tempo of the game a little bit. I think the crowd was into it. I heard a lot of people yelling for Colin, excited that he was showing some fight and some toughness. Those things do change the energy of the game.”
Now, with the crowd wanting even more for the Jazz to show that they were the better team on Sunday and a closing lineup that was starting to find a rhythm, the Jazz went on a tear to close out the game.
In the final 12 minutes, the Jazz outscored the Bucks 40-13 and the noise from the crowd made it feel like a postseason victory.
“At halftime, we understood it’s time to ramp it up a little bit,” Keyonte George said. “We came out in the second half and I feel like we were a whole different team. We were talking, communicating — not just on the floor, but on the bench — coming to timeouts locked in. With our team, if we’re completely locked in … we’re a phenomenal team and we’re a hard team to beat coming into this arena.”
The Jazz proved that much on Sunday night, in a game that felt bigger than it was.