The Utah Jazz (27-16) escaped from the valley of the Phoenix Suns (13-28) in what was a way more competitive game than it ever should have been. The 106-101 victory was, frankly, improbable with how poorly Utah was mailing it in for most of this game. Sure, Eric Bledsoe always slices the Jazz to pieces (31 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 7/7 from the line). And yes, Devin Booker is on a fantastic run right now (27, 22, 28, 39, 39, and 25 points tonight). But two players shouldn’t completely stun a playoff team. And truly, it wasn’t so much an early game of Phoenix being Phoenix, but more of Utah being un-Utah-like.
The good guys did not mind the Ps and Qs here, missing free throw after free throw, and not finishing plays well at all. Utah would work the ball around in their methodical defense, and then for no reason, just miss the three pointers that usually fall. (George Hill would finish 1/8, for example.) But Utah found ways to be effective against the Suns and their scrappy (refs letting them foul) defense. First of all, Utah didn’t turn the ball over that much, only 8 times tonight. Second, the Jazz punished the Suns on the offensive glass, winning that battle 14 to 6. (Rudy Gobert had 6 offensive rebounds all by himself) How is he not an All-Star?
And truly, Gobert was a titan in this game, and has been all season long. Against the Orlando Magic he had a 19 and 19 game. Tonight he had an 18 and 17 night, with four blocks including the defensive dagger with only seconds left to play.
Utah, playing without Rodney Hood, elected to start Joe Ingles at wing. And his shooting and passing and defense really helped Utah stay in this game over the first three quarters (in particular, the third). Derrick Favors continues to improve, but he’s still not “there” yet. Utah needed a lift. And they got one from their former Suns players.
Joe Johnson, a king-killer with his late game shooting, had 15 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and drilled 3 threes. Boris Diaw had 12 points, 6 assists (many lobs to Rudy), and 3 rebounds.
The two vets were effective and efficient, shooting a combined 11/19. They gave it their all.
So did George Hill, one of the many players tasked with attempting to stop Booker and Bledsoe (others who tried tonight were Ingles, Hayward, Dante Exum, Raul Neto, and Alec Burks). Burks and Neto did not have their best games of the season, but Neto continues to attack and be opportunistic with his layups. He’s smart and sneaky. And sometimes that’s more successful than being a raw athletic freak.
George did not leave this game unscathed. He put up 17, 8, and 3, but he was really gassed. And he got injured with 25 seconds to play as he landed on a Suns’ player’s foot off of the Joe Johnson assist to put the Jazz up 102-101.
That really sucks because in the previous game Rodney Hood got injured in the last two minutes as well.
Thankfully Phoenix wasn’t at full strength either, missing Jared Dudley and Brandon Knight. Phoenix punched Utah all night long with their guard play, but the good guys finally prevailed. Winning the third 32-27 was the turn of the tide, and finishing the game strong, on a 7-0 run within the last 49 seconds was an indication that this is a team learning how to win. Regardless of the circumstances.
Strong vet play by guys like Hill, Diaw, and Johnson were equaled by that of Hayward and Gobert. This is a fun team when they are playing way. They did not play well to start this game. They did not play well during the majority of this game. But they didn’t give up. They kept running hard, defending hard, and ended up winning. Hard.
A heartless team doesn’t win tonight. This Utah Jazz team has heart. (H/T Frank Layden circa 1980 iirc)