Last Night’s Lessons: The Portland Win

Last night felt like a big deal. It was just another regular season game about a third into the season, but it felt like the Jazz needed this win. Ten minutes before the game, I was frantically searching for reasons why we would win the game:

Hayward lit it up against the Kings, maybe this means his confidence is back.

Maybe our offense actually works better when Big Al isn’t playing.

Maybe Lamarcus Aldridge is sick of being the poster child for the Hipster All-Stars (The Hipster All-stars are guys who aren’t actually All-stars, should be, and thus have a cult following of internet bloggers who are constantly decrying the injustice of the All-Star voting system. And yes, Paul Millsap is a Hipster All-star), and he’ll take the game off.

Two hours later, the Jazz had escaped with a victory. Initially too overcome with relief to draw any conclusions from the game, I’ve since regained enough of my mental faculties to know that this game taught us a few things. So here they are, the 3 things we learned last night:

1. Gordon Hayward took one giant leap forward last night. Granted, we at sloan v. sheed search every, passed-over obscurity of every Jazz game to find ways to compliment the G-man, but we didn’t have to look far last night. In the past, whenever Gordon has had a noticeably good game, it’s been because he’s either A) feeling it and shooting really well AND filling up the box score with non-scoring plays or B) filling up the box score with non-scoring plays. Last night, for the first time, we got an option C) he was shooting poorly, but he still provided offensive production when we needed it AND he filled up the box score with non-scoring plays. The understated play of the game was his block that set up Millsap’s score in the last minute, but Hayward gave the Jazz exactly what we needed down the stretch. On a night when we were going to live and die with how well he played (see: the difference between the first and the second half), he stepped up. He nailed free throws when they mattered, made a game-changing block, and forced shots down on an off-night. Great players have the confidence to knock down shots even after dreadful slumps, and last night, Hayward took one more step toward becoming that kind of great player.

2. In a condensed season, depth means way more than it should. In your typical NBA season, depth is a little overrated. There are enough days off between games for stars to recover, and there are enough games in the season for your team to make the playoffs and make a deep run even if your star is injured for a large chunk of the regular season. Not this season. This season, teams like the Jazz have an extra advantage. Last night’s victory, without Al Jefferson and without Raja Bell, was a prime example of this phenomenon.

3. We still need Big Al. As much as I love to hate on Big Al, our half-court offense is a disaster without him. Ever since he has learned to pass, the double-teams that he commands are invaluable. He opens up shots for Millsap, and he carries a scoring load that the combination of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors cannot match. The Jazz won last night because Hayward stepped up, Millsap reached down deep and pulled out one of the gutsiest rebounding performances I’ve witnessed, a combination of Jeremy Evans’ energy and the ESA crowd lifted the team up for one final 4th quarter run, and Enes Kanter played lockdown defense on Aldridge in the 4th quarter. Those kinds of things can’t happen every game. The Jazz need the methodical consistency that Big Al brings the offense.

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