The hottest game-ball related question I’ve been getting recently is: “Was that The Exum Game?”
For the uninitiated, I’ve been waiting all season for the game when Dante Exum would jump out and grab our attention with a game in which he starts to understand his tools. After 28 points and 9 assists in back-to-back NBA starts by Exum, a lot of people wondered if that’s what I meant when I started watching for The Exum Game.
Not quite. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that Dante is learning how to get his1, and the lineup tweak came at just the right time to save him from a funk of passiveness2. He’s recently gone from timid sub with occasional flashes of brilliance to a confident young player who looks like he belongs more often than not. And that’s big.
But that’s not what The Exum Game means. When The Exum Game happens, there will be a stretch where Exum looks like the best player on the floor. It will surprise everybody, Dante included, but for a half, or a quarter, or five minutes, he’ll start to realize what he has and he’ll stand out with his elite speed and court vision. What we’re seeing now is more about him being a beneficiary of good spacing, and even sometimes attacking on an individual play. The Exum Game will be something far more buzzworthy. At least that’s the way I’m imagining it.
Back to the task at hand: Utah has won four games since our last batch of game balls3. A month after any Jazz win, we’ll all look back and describe it by saying, “That game when…” The next word out of our mouth is going to be the game ball recipient. It’s the made-up award for the person who, for whatever reason, we’ll associate most closely with the story behind that win. Here’s a full explanation from our first-ever batch of game balls, and here’s the second round where we doled out another seven Spaldings.
Now that you’re up to speed, let’s see who gets to put some leather on their mantle4.
Jazz 97, Bulls 77 – Rudy Gobert
Beating the Bulls in Chicago by 20 is huge. For me, this and the win in Memphis are the two most impressive wins of the season. They’re also back-to-back game balls for Gobert as a reward for battling los hermanos Gasol. We talked in our last installment about what he did to Marc & company; he had Pau’s squad just as discombobulated. Utah’s defensive rating for the night was 84.6 against one of the league’s better teams, and Rudy made himself felt with 11 points, 14 boards and 5 blocks as a starter. Several others played well, too, but Utah won this one on the defensive end, and we’ll look back on this as another game where Gobert dictated on defense.
Also considered: Derrick Favors (20 & 11), Gordon Hayward (18-4-5-2-1), Trey Burke (17 and four assists).
Jazz 94, Lakers 85 – Gordon Hayward
This one was easier than most in this batch. His 31 points and seven assists made him look like a true alpha against the Kobe-less Lakers. After the Lakers pulled to within two at 83-81, the Jazz finished on an 11-4 run, and all 11 points were scored (6) or assisted (5) by Hayward. Clutch.
Also considered: Trey Burke (20 points in a string of nice games), Derrick Favors (18 & 10).
Jazz 101, Bucks 99 – Enes Kanter
This might be a violation of my own “That game when…” criterion, because long before tipoff there was a buzz that guaranteed we’d look back on this one as the night the door opened for Dante. As nice as it was to see him blow up from the three point line, at least two guys definitely had more to do with this win: Hayward and Kanter. The Jazz had to come from behind in the 4th quarter, on the road, against a playoff team and without their second best player. Tough job. How did they do it? Of their 12 scoring possessions in the 4th quarter, 11 were either Hayward or Kanter scores. Could have gone either way here, but I was excited about Kanter’s beastly line (23 & 16) and the fact that he finally had a monster game in a Jazz win5.
Also considered: Hayward (24-6-6 and a 13-point fourth), Exum (see above).
Jazz 108, Nets 73 – Trey Burke
In the second game of the Burke-off-the-bench experiment, the second-year guard made Quin Snyder look pretty smart. When you win by 35, that usually means a lot of guys did their jobs, but Burke’s memorably took over with 15 second-quarter points that powered the Jazz for the decisive 33-16 frame. Overall, it feels a little odd to skip past Hayward’s 24-4-3-3, but Trey’s 19 and three assists probably had a more direct impact on the stretch that led Utah to their 16th win.
Also considered: Hayward (duh), Joe Ingles (Career high 16, plus 5 assists), Exum (13-4-4, a including seven straight in the 1st quarter) and Snyder (who, as my friend @Mac_Jazz points out, deserves some credit for making the lineup change in the first place.