Only 81 Games Left

Photo: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty ImagesPhoto: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty Images

In the waning minutes of the Utah Jazz season opener, the players on the court for Utah were almost as surprising as the score. At the start of the fourth quarter Utah was down by eight points, and it had been 15 not much earlier.

The unit that led the comeback featured Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert and Mike Harris. Burks was the spark as he turned into, “Mr. I get buckets” leading the Jazz with 24 points. Not to say that the 22-year old is always going to make the right basketball decision, but last night he showed he’s the best healthy player the Jazz have when they need someone to drive to the basket.

His scoring was efficient too, dropping 24 points on just 16 shots. Burks was fantastic from short range connecting on 7-9 from inside of 10 feet. His ability to get to the rim and finish opened up passing lane’s throughout the night, he garnered six assists to go with his six boards.

“That’s how I play,” Burks said. “I’ll never shy away from (getting to the basket), that’s how I play.”

Burks got to the hoop and finished, but hasn’t mastered what Kevin Durant seems to have down, getting to the line. Burks attempted just nine free throws which seems like pocket change for somebody who took it to the rim as often as he did.

Durant made 22 of 24 free throws but attempted just 6 shots from inside of 10 feet. Of course, missing when fouled doesn’t count as an attempt, so Durant was in the paint more than those numbers indicate but the fact remains that Burks either needs to sell the contact a little more, or become more popular.

As Burks led the charge on offense, Harris guarded Durant much of the night while Gordon Hayward fought through foul trouble. Harris eventually fouled out but managed to score 13 points and stay on the court for almost 22 minutes. Pretty good considering nobody was sure he’d have a spot on the Jazz roster a week ago.

“I tried to help the team anyway I can,” Harris said. “I tried to provide energy and as a group we fought hard and executed the game plan for the most part.”

The Jazz push in the fourth quarter wasn’t ever enough to get over the hump. Utah trailed 93-90 after Gordon Hayward made a free throw with 2:14 on the clock. Durant answered with two of his own from the charity stripe.

Burks would answer with a very fancy up-and-under reverse lay-up 36 seconds later to keep the Jazz within striking distance. Behind by three, Derek Favors got to the line with 18 seconds on the clock and missed both free throws.

The Jazz big’s shined early and often though. Going against a premier big in Serge Ibaka, Favors had great moments in the first quarter with a facial dunk followed by a block at the rim for “I-block-a” himself. Favors shot better than 50 percent from the field and grabbed nine boards.

Beyond the pretty clear evidence of a four-year contract extension indicating he’ll be a mainstay inside, Favors’ play showed why he’ll be patrolling the paint for years to come in Utah. The other bigs’ time is still in limbo with Gobert looking to challenge Kanter for minutes.

Kanter’s 60 percent shooting and 10 boards were great, but after the game Favors referred to him as a pick-and-pop player and followed that by saying Gobert is a pick-and-roll player. He’s happy playing with either of them, but depending on how the offense evolves, and the young big’s with it, don’t be surprised to see Gobert continue sneaking minutes away from Kanter.

Throughout the night Jazz fans had plenty to smile about. Judging from reactions on Twitter (and a text message from my dad), this team is a lot more fun to watch than the majority of folks anticipated.

The upside of youth and potential doesn’t come without a few drawbacks as well. Poor decisions throughout the night led the Jazz to turn the ball over 22 times, five of which came in the fourth quarter. Utah also struggled from the line – making 20 of 30 attempts means that if the Jazz had connected on 77 percent from the stripe, they would have been tied at the end of the fourth. That can be chalked up to growing pains for the optimistic among us.

The outcome really boils down to the Jazz inability to find an answer for Durant. They defended him better than most, holding him to 37.5 percent from the field, but he still got a good jump on another scoring title with 42 points in the season opener. Where Utah truly was stellar defensively, was down low. The Thunder only scored 32 from inside the paint and shot less than 50 percent within that range.

As time dwindled, the Jazz were often just a shot away from tying or taking the lead. In the end, it was just one more shot they needed. With about two seconds left Hayward hoisted a deep three that could have tied the game only to see it rim out. The Jazz lost 101-98, but the organization won as the youth movement is in full-swing in Utah and the fans are ready to go along for the ride.

Posted in Featured Writers