SALT LAKE CITY — Did you know that Sterling Brown traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis last November? Or that the street Ben McLemore grew up on was renamed “Ben McLemore III Place”?
Those are some of things you look up during a game where the team with the best record in the NBA is playing mostly fringe NBA players — might as well find out about them, right?
Due to injuries and trade demands, things were pretty bleak for the Houston Rockets on Friday. As expected, the Utah Jazz won in blowout fashion, 114-99. Unexpectedly, they needed a strong finish in order to do that.
So, 15-point win or not, Jazz coach Quin Snyder was less-than-pleased with his team in its first game back from the All-Star break.
“Very poor — very poor on a lot of levels,” Snyder said when questioned about his team’s performance. “We gave everything up. We gave up the paint, gave up 3s, we were lucky they didn’t make more shots, because we were porous defensively.”
Houston shot 37% from the field, but that was less to do with what the Jazz did and more so the lineup the Rockets had to put up.
Heading into the game, Houston’s starting lineup of Brown, McLemore, Jae’Sean Tate, Kevin Porter Jr, and Justin Patton had appeared in a combined 763 games. Utah’s Mike Conley has started 828 games — that’s just a bit of an experience advantage.
“I mean, with the lineup that we have on the floor, it’s going to be getting the ball up the floor and being organized on both sides of the court,” Houston coach Stephen Silas said before the game when asked what he wanted to see from his team.
Sounds simple and almost like he was joking — he wasn’t. With a nine-player rotation that featured G-Leaguers and end-of-bench players, he was just hoping to see some cohesion.
Houston didn’t have John Wall, Eric Gordon, Victor Oladipo, Christian Wood, Danuel House, Rodions Kurucs, PJ Tucker or Dante Exum available — that’s practically a full NBA team.
“When you play a team like this with their guys out, we got to understand and I think we did, you know, to an extent that they’re playing free,” said Donovan Mitchell, who had 28 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. “Without John, without Christian, without Vic, they’re playing free and they’re coming to attack us, everybody’s coming to attack.”
Houston got 19 offensive rebounds and had 24 second-chance points. Those are effort stats. And what the Rockets may have lacked in talent and experience, they tried to make up for it in energy. And when the Jazz went up by 23 points in the third quarter, they found a way to come back.
And Utah, frankly, let them.
The Jazz played like it expected the Rockets to throw in the towel — it turns out so-called fringe NBA players are still pretty good at basketball.
The Rockets went on a run between the third and fourth quarters, and even trimmed the Jazz lead to just four with 7:28 remaining.
Mitchell watched rebounds fly by him, Derrick Favors displayed minimal effort in closing out on shooters, and, well, that about summed up the effort from the whole team for large portions of the game Friday.
“I understand that you’re coming off the break,” Snyder said. “There’s a lot of things that you could point to as explanations, but those explanations aren’t going to do it. We just have to be better. And we know how to be better. We weren’t as focused as we need to be. We weren’t as disciplined as we need to be. We didn’t play well. And that happens, but when it happens like this, it’s not something that any of us can accept.”
That was echoed by Mitchell. The Jazz had a long break and have been dealing with the loss of long-time team employee Doug Birrell, who passed last weekend. But as Joe Ingles said, it’s their job to be able to compartmentalize when they get on the court. No one thought they did a good job of that on Friday.
“It’d be easy to say it’s the first game back trying to get our win but I think we have pride in ourselves and I think that’s the collective feel around the locker room,” Mitchell said.
In the end, though, it was a win. The Jazz closed the game on a 12-3 run over the last four-plus minutes, showing what they should have done the rest of the game.
“We have to maintain the focus that we need to play the way that we can and we didn’t have that we didn’t have that focus tonight,” Snyder said.