One hundred and forty-one nights after his positive coronavirus test triggered the suspension of the NBA season, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert scored the first points of the league’s restart, converting a drop-step move over former teammate Derrick Favors on the opening possession of Thursday night’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
More important, Gobert also scored the game’s final points, hitting a pair of go-ahead free throws with 6.9 seconds remaining.
“I’m just grateful,” Gobert told ESPN in a telephone interview after the Jazz’s 106-104 victory at Walt Disney World’s HP Field House. “Just grateful to be able to do what I love to do. After everything that I’ve personally and everything the world is going through right now, to be able to keep inspiring millions of kids around the world and keep spreading positivity is just a blessing.
“And it’s great to start with a win, of course.”
It was also a fitting way to end the win, as shooting guard Donovan Mitchell broke down the defense with dribble penetration and fed Gobert to lead to the free throws. A foul by Favors prevented Gobert from finishing with a highlight-worthy dunk, but the play still stood as proof that the Jazz co-stars whose rift dominated news coverage of the franchise for months could continue to have a productive working partnership.
“Donovan was trying to make the right play and he did,” said Gobert, who had 14 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks in the win, which was sealed when Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. “A lot of people probably won’t be able to probably say the things they want to say to try to break our team apart. Like I said, life works in mysterious ways.”
The Jazz’s pair of All-Stars didn’t speak for the first month of the hiatus because Mitchell, who tested positive for COVID-19 hours after Gobert, was upset about the 7-footer’s cavalier attitude about the coronavirus pandemic before Gobert was aware he was infected.
However, they have both acknowledged that there was friction between them before the pandemic, primarily regarding how often Mitchell passed to Gobert and the big man’s tendency to complain about it.
“We’ve moved on, and we’ve talked about using this entire experience to get better, and I think those two guys have done that,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
After several productive private conversations, with each taking accountability, Gobert and Mitchell both publicly expressed confidence in recent weeks they could continue to win together and have a desire to shift the focus back to the team as a whole. They reiterated that stance in the wake of working together on the critical play in Thursday’s win.
“That also kind of stops y’all from talking about it, to be honest with you,” said Mitchell, who had two of his five assists on lobs to Gobert in the third quarter, when the Jazz were rallying from a 16-point deficit. “At the end, we’re basketball players. We go out there and make the right play. He did a hell of a job. I try to find my way and find guys who get open. For me, at the end of the game, it’s about making the right read. I’ve told y’all a thousand times I’m trying to be a better passer, better playmaker as a whole. To be able to do that in that situations just shows the steps I’ve made.
“It’s just me trusting him and him trusting me. That’s really what it is. … He had the first two points, and for that [play] to end it, it should kind of seal everything as far as talking about all that extra stuff.”
Mitchell scored eight of his 20 points in the final five minutes, single-handedly outscoring the Pelicans during crunch time, as the Jazz put the finishing touches on their comeback. It matched Utah’s largest comeback of the season, as it also trailed the Portland Trail Blazers by 16 in a Feb. 7 win, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Mitchell had the Jazz’s previous eight points when, with the score tied, he drove down the middle of the lane after beating New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday with a behind-the-back dribble, forced Favors to step up to help and made a pretty one-handed pass to Gobert.
“To make the play that he did late and drop the ball off to Rudy and then have Rudy make the two free throws, that shows a lot of confidence in your teammate,” Snyder said. “Maybe I’ll change my mind and say it is poetic, but I don’t want to overstate it too much. Those two guys have done that hundreds and hundreds of times over the last [three] years, the time that they’ve been playing together. It’s great to see them connecting on the court.”
Gobert still had to sink the pressure-packed free throws, which had been a problem for him. He entered the game 1-of-8 on free throws in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info research, the worst clip (12.5%) of any player with at least five attempts in such situations.
But Gobert made both free throws with the game on the line, saying he simply focused on how he held the ball and his follow-through, not the magnitude of the moment.
After the game ended, the final interaction between players on the floor was Mitchell walking over to exchange a high-five with Gobert before the center’s TNT sideline interview.
“Every team has ups and downs,” Gobert said. “The most important thing is the way you respond. It takes a bigger man to take the high road in life. We’re both doing that right now. We’re both going to keep trying to make each other better. That’s what our team needs and our community needs.”