OKLAHOMA CITY — Lu Dort won the battle, Donovan Mitchell the war. As long as extreme metaphors are allowed to be used two games into a basketball season, that is.
Believe it or not, Utah’s 110-109 victory over Oklahoma City Monday night marked the Jazz’s first win in the 405 area code since Halloween night, 2010.
However, while nobody’s likely to remember that game more than a decade ago, everybody remembers the last time the Jazz visited Chesapeake Energy Arena, 293 days prior, March 11, the night the coronavirus shut down its first sporting event in North America.
Starters had already been introduced when a member of Oklahoma City’s medical staff ran to the floor and conferenced with officials, letting them know Utah center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. The game was quickly put on hold, fans were sent home and sports as the world knew them were absent for months and months.
“That was kind of the first domino,” said Thunder coach Mark Daigneault, an assistant to then-OKC skipper Billy Donovan at the time. “That game was the first domino and a lot of other things got knocked over as a result of that experience.
“Looking back on it, it’s a little surreal, a little eerie … It’s been a really tough time in our society, in our world, in the country, for a lot of people.”
It’s still that way for many, a fact reflected in the empty arena the Jazz and Thunder played to Monday.
On the bright side, the game got played, it was close the whole way and about the only complaint the home team might have was the Jazz made their last shot and the Thunder missed theirs.
That shot belonged to Mitchell, who was stuck on eight points through three-and-a-half quarters before scoring the Jazz’s final 12, the last bucket a left-side running bank shot from about five feet.
Dort, who shut Mitchell down until his final flurry, finished with a career-high 26 points, making 9 of 11 shots and 5 of 7 3-point attempts.
If only he could have held Mitchell to 18 points, rather than 20, the Thunder would have two straight victories to begin the season.
“He’s a hell of a defender,” Mitchell said.
He wasn’t the the only one saying it.
“Lu Dort set the tone … His ability to get into guys, to force them a certain way, to be there to contest those shots,” Oklahoma City center Al Horford said. “It’s not easy and he was able to do that all game long.”
Mitchell’s game-winner left the Thunder with 7 seconds to win it and for the second straight game, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tried to make it happen.
Two days earlier, he’d beaten Charlotte with a pull-up jumper, just inside the 3-point arc. Monday, he went for his own running bank shot, similar to Mitchell’s, but from the right side.
It bounced away.
Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 23 points on 9-of-21 shooting, but just 1-of-7 accuracy from beyond the 3-point arc.
George Hill added 14 points. Horford finished with 11, nine coming on 3 of 7 3-point accuracy.
Bojan Bogdonavich led the Jazz with 23 points, making 5 of 9 3-point attempts. Veteran point guard Mike Conley matched Mitchell’s 20.
At different moments in the fourth quarter, each team provided big plays.
A Dort 3 was followed by a driving bucket from Darius Bazley that gave OKC it’s biggest lead, 100-93.
After the Jazz answered with an 11-0 run, the Thunder still out of sync, Gilgeous-Alexander took it upon himself over back-to-back possessions, scoring each time.
Near the end, after misses from Bazley and Gilgeous-Alexander, Hill kept the possession going with an offensive rebound before finding Dort for his final 3-pointer, a basket that put Oklahoma City up a point with 1:04 remaining.
Had fans been in the seats, the arena would have exploded. The Thunder knew it and missed it.
“One of the things I’ve loved over the years coming to Oklahoma City is the energy the fans bring,” Hill said. “It’s one of the places the fans can really get the team going.”
Until then, the Thunder will have to be self starters.
They were Monday. They’ll try to be again tonight when Orlando visits.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win by playing the right way,” Hill said. “Playing hard.”
Two-hundred-and-ninety-three days after they sent the fans home, it wasn’t quite enough.