After the Jazz punted away two victories, including a most embarrassing loss to the Sacramento Kings and another to the L.A. Clippers, by forgetting the ever-true words of Pat Riley — “No rebounds, no rings” — they rebounded with two meaningful wins over a couple of the NBA’s best teams — the Sixers and the Bucks.
Let’s say it all plain here: Of all the Jazz’s offseason moves, signing Bogdanovic has been the most important — by a large margin. He has given the Jazz what, outside of Donovan Mitchell, they have sorely lacked since the departure of Gordon Hayward — a versatile presence on attack who can shoot and score in a variety of ways. Anybody who thought Bogdanovic was solely a spot-up shooter knew only a fraction of the truth.
Croatian dude can shoot and move and handle and pass and score and D up on occasion, too.
And as was evident on his game-winning bomb to beat the Bucks, there’s a confidence and a ferocity to his mindset that will be most useful for the Jazz this season — not just in the literal, from his own production — he scored 33 points on Friday night and has averaged 22 thus far — but also in positively influencing teammates who are yearning for the same characteristics for themselves and in a group-identity kind of way.
Quin Snyder summarized what he saw out of Bogdanovic in two postgame speech clusters:
“He’s a heckuva player. He can score the ball a lot of different ways. His toughness was what differentiated him. That carried over to the last possession.”
And: “The whole team knew that Bojan wanted the ball. … If you have players who aren’t afraid of the moment, who can make reads and make decisions and want the ball, that’s the best thing in the world.”
It certainly was against the Bucks, and it will be again, as the Jazz moving forward reach for a level of play far beyond what they’ve experienced in the past three years, as they’ve made it to the early rounds of the playoffs before being ousted.
That reaction of the team, as Bogdanovic enjoyed his big moment, evidenced an evolving, rising sense of consciousness, of understanding for what is possible for the Jazz, possibilities that remain yet only partially uncovered at this point.
It’s as though the players themselves are on a journey of team-discovery regarding how good they can be.
As Bogdanovic was mobbed on the court, a scrum surrounding him and a water cooler filled with ice dumped on his head, he wanted to just stand there and soak in the blessed noise from the crowd, which chanted his name.
“Let me listen to that right now,” he said.
He downplayed his game-winner: “I had a wide-open shot from the corner.”
The Jazz played great against the Bucks in the first half. They led by 20 points, limiting Giannis Antetokounmpo to a mere two points. Everybody in the building knew what was coming in the second — a blitz by the league’s MVP that totaled another 28 points. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
At times through the third and fourth quarters, the Jazz tripped all over themselves, not only allowing their large lead to evaporate, but contributing to that evaporation with sloppy play, bad shots, bad turnovers, missed opportunities, and yielding those dreaded second-chance points. Milwaukee kept pushing and pulling and advancing, taking the lead in the fourth.
Even after the Jazz created a 100-92 lead with a buck-thirty left, they let it slip away. “We weren’t as tough with the ball as we needed to be,” Snyder said.
They mustered enough poise at the end, making just enough shots and playing enough defense, including a great stop by Rudy Gobert with 1.3 seconds remaining, the game tied, to cause a turnover — a travel — by Khris Middleton as he maneuvered for a shot.
That set up Bogdanovic’s 3.
Absolute conclusions cannot be drawn from games this early, especially not games played advantageously at home. But the end of Friday night’s win and the back half of this past week give indication of something stirring within the Jazz. Even when they don’t play at their peak, they hang in, giving themselves a chance.
It’s an imperfect evolution, not a revolution, as everyone around here’s been waiting for Mike Conley, always a notorious slow starter even back in Memphis, to find himself with the Jazz. He who was lost in all but a couple of quarters thus far was found in the first half against the Bucks, when he went for 19 points. The fact that he scored one point in the second was erased by Bogdanovic’s stellar play.
Here’s a prediction and a proclamation: From the juncture when Conley finally consistently shapes himself into what he’s been for the majority of his career — he’s not there, yet — the Jazz will ascend to one of the best records in the West. Watch and witness the run that unfolds.
Meantime, the Jazz are bumping and skidding over stretches, but winning, anyway, currently sitting at 6-3.
Over the first eight games, they lagged to 26th in offensive rating. As much as they want — Snyder wants them — to shoot 3-pointers, they ranked 23rd in 3-point attempts. (Against the Bucks, they made 15 of 36.) Making matters worse, they were 26th in assists and 25th in turnovers. At the other end, despite their second-best defensive rating, they were accompanying that with what Snyder never wants to see — an abundance of fouls. The Jazz ranked 24th in personal fouls. Surprisingly, what with Gobert at the center of their resistance, they also were just 24th in blocked shots.
The important test for the Jazz in fulfilling their potential, whatever it is, will be to grow as they compete, to grow together, to grow up, and Snyder knows this, saying: “We should feel really good about this [latest] win. … There’s some things we need to do better, and we need to learn from that, in spite of the jubilation.”
In spite of the winning, fleeting and fickle as it can be.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5. FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.