When Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder walked inside his team’s Oklahoma City hotel last night, he tried to remember the atmosphere and the excitement he felt there in years past.
But the memories of March 11, 2020, came flooding back instead.
“You can’t help but remember that evening,” Snyder said.
That was the night the NBA season came to a screeching halt with All-Stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell becoming the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Nine months later, Gobert and Mitchell were back in Oklahoma City, and this time they weren’t leaving without a win.
Mitchell scored his team’s final 12 points—including the game-winning basket with 7 seconds to play—and Gobert shut down OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the rim as time expired to give the Jazz a 110-109 victory.
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“Obviously you have all the memories coming back,” Gobert said after recording 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. “It’s a little bit of a weird atmosphere. But I’m happy we were able to come back and get the win.”
The road trip started with some déjà vu for Mitchell. “I had the same hotel room, believe it or not,” he said. Point guard Mike Conley called it “eerie and a little emotional” to return to the scene where the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality for so many in the United States.
“There was a lot of confusion at the time and uncertainty,” OKC Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “The virus was just gaining steam in our country. That was the first domino to fall and a lot of other things got knocked over as a result of that piece.”
But so much has changed since then. “It seems like a lifetime since that happened,” Snyder said. And as the Jazz returned to OKC for the first time since March, Snyder and the Jazz said the night had not been a major topic of conversation.
“I don’t think we harped on it,” Mitchell said.
Instead, thoughts quickly turned to basketball as the Jazz looked to bounce back from Saturday’s loss to Minnesota. The Jazz again started slow, falling behind by double-digits early. Utah would find its footing after halftime. Bojan Bogdanovic provided a 14-point flurry in the third quarter. Conley finished one assist shy of a triple-double. And Mitchell and Gobert came up huge for their squad in the clutch.
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The two teams certainly reflected on the lessons learned that night and the months that followed.
“To be honest, Rudy was vilified,” Snyder said. “In hindsight, we have a greater understanding of the virus. I think Rudy recognizes fully that there were mistakes that were made, but those mistakes have been made over and over again by different people. … Our team has come to understand that even more deeply as a result, as has the rest of the country. Rudy’s had a chance to process it. We always challenge ourselves when you have adversity to let it make you better. I think Rudy’s come out of it in a place where there’s growth.”
Nine months after that fateful night in Oklahoma, the two teams were grateful to be back on the basketball court.
“It was obviously a significant night in an eerie way,” Daigneault said. “We’re glad to be back playing. One thing we’ve talked about as a team is how grateful we are and really trying to find a sense of purpose, to not only count our blessings but to be an outlet for people and give them something to watch and root for, some positive experiences in their lives. We’re extremely grateful to be back playing and we’re obviously excited to have Utah here and have the ball go up in the air this time.”
Nine months later, Mitchell and the Jazz were ready to close a chapter with a win.
“We had a moment to reflect when we got here about how we’re back and we’re still going through things,” Mitchell said. “We’ve seen a lot happen this whole time, as a league, as a country, as a world. I’m glad we came out victorious and we’re ready to go home.”
Mike Conley’s wait for his first career triple-double will continue. But the veteran point guard will be satisfied enough with a win after going for 20 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. “My mindset was simple,” he said. “Just to win tonight. After the way we played against Minnesota, the effort we showed, I just wanted to come out and put my stamp on the game and play my role to the best of my ability.”
Donovan Mitchell knew things would turn around. The All-Star guard started Monday night by going 3-for-14 from the field, as he was hounded by OKC’s Lou Dort on the perimeter.
“The biggest thing is staying the course throughout an entire game,” Mitchell said. “There were shots I missed that I felt like I could make. It was just staying the course.”
That he did. Mitchell finished the night by scoring his team’s last 12 points, including the game-winner with 7 seconds to play. He connected on 5 of his final 9 attempts.
“He took us home,” Conley said. “He did what he does.”
Bojan Bogdanovic went 4-for-4 from deep in the third quarter. His shooting percentage in that stretch may have been a perfect 100 percent, but Bogdanovic said he is still finding his rhythm after season-ending wrist surgery in May.
“I feel pretty well physically, but I missed playing,” he said. “I didn’t play for 7-8 months. I didn’t touch the basketball. I couldn’t play the pick-up games the other guys were playing. So I have to get the feeling to make the right decisions. Right now, I’m taking shots that aren’t my shots.”
Bogdanovic was hit on the wrist Monday but said it did not impact his game negatively.
“Someone hit me pretty hard in my wrist, and then I started playing better,” he said. “Maybe I needed that to change something. My wrist adjusted after that.”
Turnovers were once again an issue for the Jazz on Monday. The team gave the ball away 17 times in all.
“There were a couple of times when our spacing kind of broke down,” Conley said. “We had two guys in the same spot and were just careless with the ball in those times. When we do have guys in the right spots and running correctly and lanes filled, we can really move the ball and make plays for each other. That’s our basketball and what we want to get to.”
The Jazz host the Phoenix Suns on New Year’s Eve. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. MT.