For all the talk about how we as fans had to temper our expectations after a 4-0 start in the preseason, I think last night showed that much of what we’ve seen so far may translate to the regular season, because that certainly didn’t feel or look like a preseason game. The Clippers wanted to win the game, they were playing to win the game, and they’ve got two of the best in the game in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, plus a masterful coach in Doc Rivers. Though the Staples Center wasn’t sold out, the vibe in the arena was electric, especially in the second half, and particularly after the Blake Griffin-Trevor Booker skirmish. I’ve never been to a preseason Clippers game that felt like that. 1
Three things from the game stood out to me:
1. Toughness and fight
Trevor Booker endeared himself to Jazz fans2 when he committed a hard foul on Blake Griffin. Some Jazz fans have lamented that the team has been too soft for too long, that once Stockton and Malone left, the gritty toughness that had defined the team for so long was gone. So when Booker showed he wasn’t going to back down from either Blake Griffin’s steamroller drive or his retaliation, a part of the Jazz’s identity started to form. Quin Snyder discussed how the team is searching for an identity and how this game will go a long way towards establishing that, and we may look back on this play as the catalyst for what shaped a tough and gritty team.
In addition to Booker’s toughness and fight, the Jazz kept fighting in this game. Even when they weren’t looking particularly sharp, I would look up at the scoreboard and see that we were up by three, or only down one. It was impressive to see that this team—projected by many “experts” to be one of the worst in the league—was fighting and playing with one of the top teams in the league.
There were so many improvements across the board that made this team so much more enjoyable for me to watch than any of the iterations over the last few years. Number one, the spacing was so much better. Even though the Clippers played tougher defense and got the Jazz out of their passing offense more than we’d like, there was enough improvement—and enough glimpses of a really great offense and great passing—to see that this team will be especially fun to watch as they learn to impose their offense on the other team’s defense, rather than only reacting to it.3
Improvements from specific players in certain areas were dramatic, too: Favors is looking so much smoother in the paint with some nifty post moves, Hayward looks more confident in leading the team and taking big shots4, Trey Burke seemed so much more comfortable running the offense and shooting more efficiently (and getting to the line!), Rudy Gobert is even more impactful in his time on the court, and Exum didn’t make some of the same defensive mistakes that he did on Monday night.
The Jazz could have folded after The Skirmish, but they kept fighting and even went on a run before the Clippers game roaring back. That’s a test of resiliency, to see how you handle the other team going on a run. The Jazz almost pulled it off. But just the fact they were neck and neck with a top team for much of the game is incredibly heartening for such a young5 team. This game was the perfect opportunity for this team to learn how to fight and how to be tough.
It’s been discussed and commented on before, but I think Quin Snyder’s technique of having a discussion with players as he takes them out—using it as a perfect teaching opportunity, and sometimes putting the player right back in—has been invaluable as far as keeping the player’s confidence high. Gobert has talked about how getting taken out last year after making a mistake made it hard for him to keep his confidence up and how it’s a different story for him this year; that lack of fear has translated into a much more composed team, in my opinion. This team could have fallen apart at the end of this game against a very good team, but they stayed in it, they fought, and they maintained composure. That’s huge for this team, and bodes well for the future.