Four months after their star center’s positive COVID-19 test precipitated the shutdown of the NBA and rest of the sports world, the Utah Jazz returned to action on Thursday with a 106-104 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Entering the second half down by 12 points and the fourth quarter down 9, the Jazz rallied with an 11-1 run midway through the final frame to take the lead. A close game eventually came down to a pass from Jazz star Donovan Mitchell to Rudy Gobert, who drew a foul and sank two free throws to give Utah the final lead. That has to be encouraging sign given that the two players reportedly weren’t on speaking terms for weeks during the hiatus.
The game ended on the next possession with a missed jumper by Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram.
Jordan Clarkson led the Jazz with 23 points off the bench, though each of the team’s starters reached double digits in scoring. Gobert hauled in 12 rebounds along with 14 points and three blocks, while Mitchell posted 20 points and five assists.
The win improves the Jazz’s record to 42-23, just one game behind the Denver Nuggets for third place in the West.
The Pelicans had looked in control for much of the game thanks to strong play from Ingram, Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick, but sputtered offensively with 9 misses in 11 shots in the game’s final seven minutes. A certain player on their bench might have been able to help with that.
Why didn’t the Pelicans play Zion more?
As the Jazz mounted their comeback, the Pelicans made the perplexing decision of not playing their star rookie Zion Williamson in the final seven minutes of the game.
Williamson had exited the NBA bubble and recently completed a required four-game quarantine, which led to a minutes limit. He ended up playing only 15 minutes in the game, in which he scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
ZO TO ZION IS BACK BABY pic.twitter.com/LPjeaE6hW1
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) July 30, 2020
Whatever happened with Williamson’s minutes, the Pelicans refusing to play their biggest star, who was seemingly healthy, in a nail-biter was an odd sight. Especially with the Pelicans playing nothing but must-win games as they sprint for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
When asked about Williamson after the game, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry stuck to the script and pointed to the team’s medical staff:
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry on Zion: "Of course we wish we could've played him down the stretch, but we used the minutes that were given to us and that's the way it is. The medical people said we played them in the minutes that were allowed for us to play him, and just move on."
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) July 31, 2020
Pelicans, Jazz players joined in kneeling for anthem
Before Gobert brought the NBA reboot full circle by scoring the league’s first official points in Disney World, every player, coach and official on the court knelt in protest of racial injustice during the national anthem, performed by Stay Human’s Jon Batiste.
NBA players have been open in their outrage over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, and maintaining their voice against injustice and police brutality was a requirement for them to go along with the NBA’s bubble plan.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said after the anthem that the rule requiring players to stand during the song would not be enforced.
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