SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell doesn’t like to use the word “restart.” The word, he says, implies an early-season vibe; a feeling that there are plenty more games ahead. And that, well, couldn’t be further from the truth.
With Thursday’s tip-off between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans (4:30 p.m. MDT, TNT), the NBA will, at long last, be back. It’ll be the resumption of a journey that has been delayed for 141 days; the beginning the most unique experiment in the history of the league.
But that tip-off will be truly significant because of what came before it. The time when, months ago, the Jazz walked off the court in Oklahoma City way back on March 11 with the sobering news: Rudy Gobert had the novel coronavirus. The Jazz sat together in the visiting locker room waiting to be tested as news trickled in that the league was getting shut down, that they were going to be quarantined, that life as they knew it was changing. They were the team at the center of the shutdown. On Thursday, they’ll be the first to play a game again.
“It's something that our guys are aware of,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “You know, the last time we took the court, obviously, the game was canceled. I think there's been a strong belief within our team that this is something, ultimately, difficult as it was over a period of weeks and months that you know has become a unifying experience.”
The Jazz went through the gamut of emotions that night in Oklahoma. There was confusion, fear, anxiety, and, then eventually sympathy for the people whose lives were impacted and turned upside down by the virus — a group that now included their teammates, their families, their coaches, and themselves. That night, the pandemic became real to them.
“It’s only right that we start it off,” said Donovan Mitchell. “It’s a big moment for sure, for the league and for us, to go out there and just to hoop and kind of just show that we’re over all the things that have happened.”
Or at least pretend to be over them.
The pandemic isn’t done. The players get constantly reminded of that fact. They are confined to a campus near Orlando, Florida, away from family and friends. A place where if bubble protocol is broken, that could mean 10-days of self-quarantine alone in their hotel rooms.
“The NBA has done such an unbelievable job organizing everything here,” Snyder said. “There's so many moving parts. I think from the outset, especially as the early days and weeks passed, there's a level of comfort that you have in the safety and the compliance that everybody here is trying to live with to give us this opportunity to play.”
And the chance to play is what Thursday’s reopening is all about. And with the symbolism of the moment, of the entire restart really, that can’t be overlooked. There are games to be played; games to be won and games to be lost.
“Even though we’re referring to these as ‘seeding games,’ I think the keyword is ‘games,’” Snyder said. “And, particularly for a team like ours that has lost a key player, there is an adjustment period. At some point, that adjustment is you’re moving forward.”
That’s what Thursday truly represents — moving forward. And that means worrying less about the safety protocols and tests, and more about the game themselves.
With no homecourt advantage to play for, the Jazz say they plan to use the eight games before the playoffs begin to worry about themselves and not where they fall in standings.
The Jazz are already in the playoffs and there isn’t going to be an "easy matchup" in the West (cue Jazz fans screaming anyone but Houston). So instead of trying to lobby for a certain matchup, the team wants to fully figure out how to play without Bojan Bogdanovic — from pushing the tempo more, encouraging quicker shots and seeing how big of an impact a freshly confident Mike Conley can make.
“I don’t think we’re too concerned about the seeding and who we’re playing,” Conley said. “Whoever you play in the West is gonna be a tough, tough matchup — it’s gonna be a tough out either way. With no home-court advantage, with no crowd, with no altitude, with none of that stuff at our advantage, it’s just more important that we take each opponent, no matter who it is, and try to put the best brand of basketball on the floor to make us successful.”
The first opponent is the Pelicans on a late July day — not a time any player or fan thought the NBA would still be being played.
“I do think, retrospectively, that we'll look back and understand that there's a sign there,” Snyder said. “Who is to say how it's processed, but I am confident that guys will feel it probably in different ways but equally relevant.”