Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans
Orlando, FL - JULY 30: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz dunks the ball during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans during a game on July 30, 2020 at The HP Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Rudy Gobert sinks game-winning free throws against Pelicans

by Aaron Falk

ORLANDO • A slam dunk would have been simple and clean — a basketball and the outstretched arm of a 7-foot man, quite literally the shortest distance between two points. A dunk would have been emphatic, leaving no doubt, only a shaking backboard. But if we have learned anything over the past few months, we have learned that things will not always be easy for us.

Rudy Gobert certainly knows that. So instead of winning Thursday night’s game, the first of the NBA’s restart here in central Florida, with a slam dunk, the Utah Jazz’s All-Star center had to earn it from the free throw line.

Gobert had been fouled in midair with 6.9 seconds left in a tied game against the New Orleans Pelicans. And while there were no fans inside the arena (a fact of this global pandemic that would have stunned us four months ago and yet has somehow become commonplace now), there were still cheers and jeers, pre-recorded and growing in volume, as Gobert stood at the stripe.

He was unfazed.

Four months after his positive COVID-19 diagnosis prompted the NBA’s shut down — four months filled with uncertainty, anonymously sourced reports, and the vitriol of online trolls — Gobert simply blocked out a little more noise and calmly sank both free throws.

“Life works in a mysterious way and I’m just happy, blessed to be able to get back on the court, do what I love to do, get back out there with my teammates and try to win a game,” Gobert said after the Jazz’s 106-104 victory. “I think it was really important for us to try to start on a positive note and now we just have to keep getting better and better and it’s a great feeling coming back.”

Gobert provided the restart’s opener with its first and last points, finishing the night with 14 in all and 12 rebounds. Utah sixth-man Jordan Clarkson scored 23 points off the bench. Donovan Mitchell had 20 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. It was Mitchell’s pass to Gobert, after months of speculation about the All-Stars’ chemistry, that led to the foul and the game-winning free throws.

“Hopefully that kind of stops y’all from talking about it,” Mitchell told reporters after the game. New Orleans’ sharpshooter JJ Redick had 21 points and the team’s star rookie, Zion Williamson, scored 13 points in 15 minutes of action. 

The Jazz trailed by as much as 16 points in the contest before rallying to reclaim a lead in the fourth quarter. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but his 3-point attempt missed the mark.

But this night — which saw both teams kneel peacefully during the national anthem, Gobert’s redemption, and basketball’s first meaningful game since the start of the pandemic — was about more than a box score.

“It seemed like more than a singular game,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “There’s been so much that’s happened since we last played, with COVID and all of the people that have been fighting for that and the social justice issues. The anthem was powerful. It’s an honor to be there with coaches and players, so it did feel like something more than a singular game. We feel really blessed and fortunate to be able to be playing right now. (There are) so many people fighting through challenging and difficult times.”

Mitchell helped orchestrate the plan to kneel on the court during the anthem. Players, coaches, staff and referees flanked the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and took a knee as the song started to play. 

“We had a players’ meeting, everybody at our hotel and branched out to everybody else. The biggest thing was just finding something we could all do together,” Mitchell said. “I got to give (Philadelphia guard) Matisse Thybulle his credit. He was the one that said we should do something around the Black Lives Matter sign, so I got to give him his credit for sure, and I brought it to them and was like, ‘Look, this is what we want to do.’ Credit to everybody that was a part of it, we appreciate the support.”

Mitchell has vowed to continue highlighting and discussing matters of racial injustice in America throughout the remainder of the NBA season and beyond.

“The game was great, we won by two, but at the end of the day, Breonna Taylor’s killers are still free,” he said during his postgame interview. “There are so many different things that we could honestly talk about, I’m going to continue to talk about Breonna Taylor because that’s near and dear to me. I obviously played college basketball there.

“I’ll continue to keep it on the forefront of people’s minds. I think they wanted to do something as well and just being able to bring that to them and being able to do it just showed how collectively as a group and as a league, we’re going to continue to keep that on everybody’s mind.”

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