I should’ve known this game was going to go well for two reasons: a) it only took me 45 minutes for me to get from Newport Beach to the Staples Center—on THANKSGIVING EVE, and b) when walking to my seat, I saw a gentleman wearing an Exum jersey. Bring it on.
Following a team that’s been going through a rebuilding process can be emotionally wearing—there are a lots of ups and downs (okay, the Corbin years were mostly downs). You get losses that are embarrassing and demoralizing like the ones against Orlando and Oklahoma City, and then you get wins where you see glimpses of what this team could be with another couple of pieces.
Tonight was the latter and it was exciting.
This Jazz team sometimes rises to the talent level of the team they’re playing—and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin showed that they’ve still got it tonight. But the glimpses we saw tonight from the Jazz were incredibly encouraging when taken on the whole. In fact, I can’t decide between Neto and Hayward—who should I gush about first?
As Jazz fans, we’ve had to continually lower our expectations regarding point guard production the last two years. My hopes were high for Dante Exum going into this season, especially after that great summer league game, only to have those hopes crumble along with a torn ACL. Point guard play this year has been shaky, as we all know, so when we get really good play from the point guard spot, it creates a dramatic difference in the game (and, particularly, the watchability of the game). The folks around me kept saying about Neto, “Who IS this guy?” But in the third quarter, he was dominant: hitting a three-pointer, weaving through the lane for a layup, driving and dishing to an open teammate.
Neto looked like belonged in the NBA tonight. That hasn’t been true of his play for much of this year (and I’m a big Neto fan!), but he was fantastic against a very crafty, very smart point guard in Chris Paul. Perhaps even more importantly, the defense Neto played on Paul and the way in which he guarded the pick-and-roll enabled the Jazz’s defense to contain anyone on the Clippers not named Paul or Griffin. Hopefully this will be the confidence boost Neto needs to string a few more good games together. His pass-first mentality is the perfect complement when he’s on the floor with the starters, and his ability to mix it up tonight with some offensive firepower was impressive. Neto had 10 points, 6 assists, and 3 steals (!) against a savvy veteran team.
Man. He likes playing against the Clippers, for one. But he was confident, poised, and aggressive from the beginning tonight. He wasn’t relying solely on the outside jumper or taking it to the hole and hoping to get a whistle to bail him out—he was bringing out every possible weapon he could: jump shots, drives, three-pointers, step-backs, everything.1 In the fourth quarter when Hayward went off for 14 points, he was trying to isolate certain mismatches when he could; at one point he kept trying to get Chris Paul to switch onto him so he’d have the height advantage. Seeing Gordon being that assertive and taking over was refreshing. For all the flack he’s gotten so far this year—and some of it’s deserved; he hasn’t played consistently well yet—it was encouraging to see him have a true Gordon Hayward game: filling up the box score with 33/7/2/3.2
We’ve heard this talked about quite a bit by Locke, Hayward, etc. But it’s a process, learning how to win, learning how to fight back. The Jazz have had some close games—the two recent embarrassing losses notwithstanding—and have showed resilience and poise in coming out ahead in a couple of them. That’s something the Jazz weren’t able to do as much last year—especially in the first half of last year. But this team is learning how to play to win, and tonight was a fantastic example of that: the game was tied through the first two quarters, but with a mix of Gordon’s continued great play into the second half, Quin’s unique substitution patterns, and Raul Neto’s dominating play in the third quarter, the Jazz were able to create separation from the Clippers and had some breathing room going into the fourth quarter. Once there, they were able to maintain that by getting stops and shots when needed to stem any momentum the Clippers tried to create.
Derrick Favors had a quiet 22/3/2/33, but even after getting backed down by a bigger Blake Griffin, he kept fighting. Same with Rudy: the stats say Rudy only gives up 30 pounds to DeAndre Jordan, but I have a hard time believing that. Yet for all the beating Gobert took in the post from Jordan, Gobert didn’t get up. Even being on the unfortunate end of some Vines, as Ben Dowsett tweeted, didn’t cause Rudy to shrink. This team keeps fighting, keeps clawing, keeps putting it out there. Hopefully with a softer schedule and more home cooking, this team can get on a roll over the next few weeks.
For now, I’m just glad the Jazz beat The Whiners in L.A. It felt really good.