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Donovan Mitchell - Royce O'Neale - Utah Jazz
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Mitchell, Gobert Carry Jazz To Late Victory Over Pelicans

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah –Β Any concerns about whether Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert could still lead the Jazz were quickly flushed away Thursday night when the team reopened the NBA season with a 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. The All-Star duo combined for 12 of the Jazz last 14 points, including the final 10 to will their team to a come from behind victory.

The Jazz trailed by 16 points with 1:46 remaining in the first half and looked dead to rights at the hands of the more physical Pelicans. However, a strong second half from Jordan Clarkson and the late-game heroics from Mitchell and Gobert saved the Jazz from a difficult loss to reopen the season.

Mitchell’s Heroics

The Jazz All-Star guard hadn’t struggled with the Pelicans through the teams’ first three meetings this season, averaging a personal-best 34 points against the New Orleans squad. However, Mitchell couldn’t find his scoring rhythm against the Pelicans through the first 44 minutes of the game.

But, after seeing a difficult leaner go through the hoop with 4:09 left in the game, Mitchell nearly singlehandedly took over the game.

The guard made four out of five free-throws, with a tough stepback jump shot between the trips to the line to allow the Jazz to keep the Pelicans at arm’s length during the final minutes of the game.

After a missed Mike Conley layup with 19 seconds remaining and the game tied, Conley rescued his errant shot and the ball finally found its way into Mitchell’s hands. After setting up an isolation drive, Mitchell found a cutting Gobert on his way to the hoop, drawing a foul, and sending the All-Star center to the line for the game-deciding free-throws.

“I thought Donovan played just terrific, he and Mike both,” Snyder said. “For Donovan to find Rudy at the end of the game there is a heck of a play.”

Mitchell’s unselfishness, especially in favor of Gobert who is the team’s third-worst free-throw shooter, after a well-documented fallout between the two players is a sign of tremendous growth from the All-Star guard.

In previous clutch situations, Mitchell has forced tough shots too early in the game clock, allowing opponents the final opportunity to win close games. Now, patiently finding Gobert as the game clock expired, Mitchell highlighted his growing evolution from scorer to all-around playmaker.

“I told you all I’m trying to become a better passer and a better playmaker as a whole,” Mitchell said of his game. “And I think just being able to do that in that situation I think just shows that step I’m trying to make.”

Mitchell finished the game with 20 points and five assists on 6-14 shooting.

Gobert’s Fitting Open And Close

Certainly no athlete, and maybe no person in the United States has been the target of more vitriol for the coronavirus pandemic shutting down professional sports than Gobert. The Jazz center was the first NBA player to publicly test positive for the virus, sending the league into a tailspin on March 11.

Fittingly, Gobert was the player to help get the league back underway when he scored the first bucket of the NBA’s return just 18 seconds into the game. Perhaps more poetic, at least in the eyes of Jazz fans, Gobert scored the final two points of the game to lead the Jazz to victory.

β€œLife works in a mysterious way and I’m just happy, blessed to be able to get back on the court, do what I love to do, get back out there with my teammates and try to win a game,” Gobert said. “I think it was really important for us to try to start on a positive note and now we just have to keep getting better and better and it’s a great feeling coming back.”

Gobert is no stranger to comeback stories throughout his life. After early draft projections marked Gobert as a potential lottery pick, the lanky Frenchman slipped to the Jazz with the 27th pick late in the first round.

After struggling to find the court early in his career, Gobert has evolved into one of the best defensive centers in recent league history. That evolution translated into consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards for the Jazz big man, before earning his first All-Star appearance earlier this season.

Now, after contracting coronavirus and being at the center of the league’s suspension, Gobert made it known he’d be a factor in the league’s return.

Jazz Bench Struggles

While Mitchell and Gobert deserve credit for how they closed the game, it was Conley and Joe Ingles who carried the Jazz staters through much of the game. Ingles was perhaps the Jazz most important player over the opening stretch of the game, initiating the offense and looking for his shot early.

However, foul trouble sidelined the Australian guard with 6:35 remaining, and a 19-10 lead, when the wheels fell off for the Jazz. The Pelicans went on a 50-25 run over the next quarter and a half to take a 60-44 lead.

The Jazz went into the break trailing 60-48, largely due to the team’s reserves when Ingles and Conley were off the floor.Β  During the first half of play, Jordan Clarkson, Georges Niang, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Tony Bradley combined to shoot just 3-16 from the floor, while Clarkson owned a game-worst -21 in his minutes on the floor.

The Jazz bench, which will largely have to keep the team in games by connecting on three-point shots went just 1-13 from deep in the season reopener, with Clarkson securing the lone make on eight attempts.

To Clarkson’s credit, the reserve guard bounced back in the second half and helped trim the Pelicans lead from double digits down to a one-possession game. The Jazz midseason acquisition finished the game with a team-leading 23 points on 8-17 shooting.

“When Jordan has space on the floor to work, he’s really difficult to guard,” Snyder said. “And that’s what you saw in the second half.”

What The Win Means

With the victory, the Jazz move 1.5 games up on both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets. With no home-court advantage in the playoffs, controlling seeding may be the Jazz best advantage late in the season.

Should the Jazz decide they’d prefer to not face either the Thunder or the Rockets in the four-five first-round matchup, they could conceivably tank games late in the seeding-game process and face whichever team owns the third-best record by falling to the sixth seed.

While the option may seem unlikely, the Jazz should be willing to explore the option since seeding won’t offer them the advantage of hosting a potential game seven in Salt Lake City.

Perhaps the most important takeaway for the Jazz from the evening is the belief that the team can win tough games even without Bojan Bogdanovic. The sharpshooting forward had been a go-to scoring option late in close games throughout the season, and the Jazz found a way to earn a victory without him.

While the team will need to continue to improve the sometimes stagnant offense without Bogdanovic, they now have a successful reference point on which to look when the next face adversity.

The Jazz will host the Thunder Saturday at 1:30 pm MT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN and AT&T SportsNet.

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