Thunder, Jazz finally get to play 20 weeks after shutdown

Things were a lot different the last time the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz were preparing to play.

On March 11 in Oklahoma City, the sports landscape shifted suddenly when Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.

A bit after the scheduled tip-off time, the game was announced as postponed “due to unforeseen circumstances,” and that night, the NBA announced an indefinite shutdown due to the pandemic.

Within days, most other sports had followed suit.

Saturday afternoon, the NBA’s restart continues with the Thunder and Jazz meeting.

Oklahoma City, playing its first game of the restart, will be the home team but instead of playing at a packed Chesapeake Energy Arena, the teams will be meeting at The Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando.

“It’s a helluva coincidence that that’s who our first game is against,” Thunder point guard Chris Paul said.

The game will be Utah’s second of the restart, with the Jazz beating New Orleans 106-104 on Thursday night.

Gobert scored the first and last points of that game.

“Life works in mysterious ways,” Gobert said. “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.”

While there’s plenty of symbolism in Saturday’s matchup, there’s also plenty of intrigue from a standings perspective.

The Jazz and the Thunder are part of a five-team group separated by just four games in the Western Conference playoff race from third to seventh place.

Utah (42-23) comes into the matchup a game-and-a-half up on the Thunder (40-24).

“Utah will give us a really good indication over a 48-minute game of where we’re at,” Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan said, “and how much more work needs to be done.”

The Jazz look a bit different from when the league was shutdown after forward Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah’s second-leading scorer, underwent season-ending wrist surgery during the hiatus.

In the win over the Pelicans on Thursday, the Jazz made up for the loss with chemistry between Donovan Mitchell and Gobert as well as veteran point guard Mike Conley’s contributions.

A rift between Gobert and Mitchell formed after Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19 not long after Gobert’s positive test, but Mitchell’s feed to Gobert in the closing seconds helped put Gobert on the free-throw line to lift Utah to the win.

“Hopefully that kinda stops y’all from talking about it,” Mitchell said jokingly. “At the end of the day, we’re basketball players trying to go out there and make the right plays.”

The Thunder don’t figure to be dramatically different than they were when the season paused, though they’ll get a lift from one new addition.

Small forward Andre Roberson could see his first regular-season game action since Jan. 27, 2018. Roberson suffered a ruptured left patellar tendon that night and has had several setbacks along the way, but returned to the team when it left for Florida and participated in scrimmages leading up to the restart.

It’s a much different team than the one Roberson left.

Then, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony starred for Oklahoma City. Now, only Steven Adams and Terrance Ferguson remain from the last time Roberson suited up.

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