ORLANDO (ABC4 Sports) – It had been four and a half months since we last saw the Utah Jazz play a real NBA game. It was worth the wait.
Rudy Gobert sank two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to cap a 14-point, 12-rebound and three-block performance, giving the Utah Jazz a 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans in the first game of the NBA’s restart on Thursday night.
New Orleans, which led for most of the game and by as many as 16 points, nearly pulled out the victory as time expired when Brandon Ingram’s 3-point attempt rimmed out in a bitter end to his 23-point night.
“He’s made a ton of big shots for us this year, but the bottom line is I don’t think it should have come down to that,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We let a golden opportunity slip away.”
Zion Williamson, who missed nearly two weeks of practice after leaving the team for a family medical matter on July 16, was deemed fit to start, although his playing time was limited.
He scored 13 points in just more than 15 minutes, highlighted by a couple alley-oop dunks, one on a nearly half-court lob from Lonzo Ball.
But Williamson checked out for good with 7:19 left in the fourth quarter and watched the tense finish from the sideline.
“Of course we wish we could have played him down the stretch, but he’d used the minutes that was given to us, so that’s the way it is,” Gentry said. “We weren’t going to stick him back out there.”
Williamson said he “did want to be out there, but we’re just working my way back into my flow. That’s all it is.”
Jordan Clarkson scored 23 points for Utah and helped lead a second-half comeback, while Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley each added 20.
“When Jordan has space on the floor to work, he’s really difficult to guard,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s what you saw in the second half.”
JJ Redick scored 21, including a clutch 3 to tie it at 102, while Jrue Holiday added 20 points for New Orleans.
The game was tied at 104 after Ingram’s free throws with 32 seconds left and Conley missed inside with just less than 20 seconds to go, but got his own rebound. The Jazz moved the ball to Mitchell, whose drive forced New Orleans to collapse on him before he fed Gobert for a dunk attempt that Derrick Favors could only stop with forceful foul.
“For Donovan to find Rudy at the end of the game there is a heck of a play, and then Rudy goes and makes the two free throws,” Snyder said. “Those guys have done that hundreds and hundreds of times.”
Gobert, who’d featured prominently on defense with clean rejections of Williamson and Favors, calmly made the deciding foul shots.
“He impacts the game so many ways,” Snyder said. “But often times, it’s not with his scoring.”
With Williamson on the bench, New Orleans closed the first quarter with an 18-4 run, highlighted by Ingram’s dunk, finger roll and 3, to take a lead it would hold until late in the fourth quarter.
New Orleans had its biggest lead when Holiday’s fadeaway made it 60-44 late in the second quarter.
After Utah methodically pulled within one possession in the middle of the fourth quarter, New Orleans threatened to pull away again when Ingram hit a pull-up and E’Twaun Moore hit a 3 made possible by Jaxson Hayes’ offensive rebound.
But the Jazz weren’t finished, going on an 11-1 run, marked by Mitchell’s driving floater off the glass, to take a late three-point lead inside the final four minutes.
Utah forced 20 New Orleans turnovers, while the Pelicans missed 20 of 31 3-point attempts.
While Mitchell and Gobert dealt with awkwardness between each other after they became two of the first NBA players to test positive for the coronavirus back in March, their chemistry on the court was undiminished, and Snyder wasn’t surprised.
“They certainly had some synergy on the court,” Snyder said. “To see them connected like that was really good. We’ve moved on from all that stuff (in March). We’ve been here practicing and working. We’ve talked about using this entire experience to get better and I think those two guys have done that, too.”
Snyder said before the game there was no denying how much Utah would miss forward Bojan Bogdanovic, who has hit 41.4% of his 3-point attempts this season and was averaging 21.2 points per game before his wrist injury.
“We don’t have anybody like Bojan,” Snyder said. “So we’ve had discussions about everybody absorbing his shots.” The Jazz went 8 of 34 from 3-point range but scored 54 points in the paint and went 24 of 28 on foul shots.
The Jazz (42-23) next play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday at noon.