It was clear, though improbably, how much Shelvin Mack meant to the Jazz well before he took the floor on Tuesday night. Earlier in the afternoon, head coach Quin Snyder told reporters that his new point guard deserved playing time, and a few hours later, it was revealed Mack would indeed start. He would start for the first time in two seasons in a game with postseason implications, in front of a packed home crowd against the Rockets. The Jazz trailed the Rockets by half a game for the eight seed, and no, Shelvin Mack was not acquired simply to keep Gordon Hayward company.
That said, as Mack — acquired from Atlanta in a three way deal with Chicago that required only a second-round selection from Utah — opened the game alongside his former college teammate, League Pass-owning Butler nostalgics weren’t the only ones feeling pretty great about the thrifty deadline move. After scoring 16 points with six assists off the bench while debuting in a playoff-like Portland atmosphere, the former second-rounder stepped right into another one and again excelled, displaying the poise and patience befitting of Snyder’s preferred style.
Mack scored a season-high 17 points to help pace the Jazz in a 117–114 overtime win that moved the team directly into playoff position, flipping the Rockets a half-game back. Snyder let him run things with Utah’s impressive starters, tried the bigger-bodied Mack in two-guard looks next to Trey Burke and Raul Neto, and displayed plenty of confidence in a guy who’d logged just 180 minutes all season before the deal. The year Snyder, a former Hawks assistant, and Mack spent together in Atlanta evidently left quite the impression.
It would seem the Jazz, weathering major early-season injuries and chasing the postseason in a watered-down conference, made a shred call in not rejiggering its roster. Point guard was the clear need, with the rookie Neto playing passable but non-authoritative ball, and an up-and down Burke dangling in trade talks. Jeff Teague popped up in reports. Utah eyed a clear upgrade.
Instead, it plucked the third-best point guard off an in-limbo Atlanta roster as a short-term backcourt fix — at minimum, that is, with Alec Burks still on his way back from ankle surgery. Long-term, the specter of Dante Exum’s much-discussed potential still hangs over the organization. The move looked like a non-starter (as did Mack).
Without jumping to conclusions here, the point guard situation is still fluid and imperfect. Utah, trailing by four to open the quarter, shot its way into the lead, but thanks to none other than trade-bait Trey Burke, who hit a trio of key fourth-quarter threes to retain the lead and remind everyone he still existed. As for Mack, he didn’t score in the period and missed a pair of very-open threes from the right wing in the final two minutes. Rodney Hood bailed the Jazz out with a late go-ahead three, the Rockets dodged a minor implosion by way of a corner three from the venerable Jason Terry for the tie, and in a moment fully befitting of Mack’s presence, Hayward missed a half-court shot at the buzzer. Hayward, it should be noted, scored 28 points on just seven shots.
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The two misses hurt, but in the end, Shelvin Mack is on the court for the little things. In overtime, they included digging up a late rebound to salvage a possession, then catching it in the corner one ball rotation later and driving for a floater. The Rodney Hood movie played again, with a three over Howard in the final minute proving the winner, but the end-credits scene was all Mack.
With the ball back in Terry’s hands in the same corner in the same situation, down three, he burst for the corner and lunged as Terry went up for the shot. Replay revealed a late two-handed clap in the face of the airborne shooter. This time, Terry found rim.
What’s Shelvin Mack, fifth-year journeyman, really worth to the Jazz? Step back, and it’s only been two games. Step back further, and the backcourt picture is still evolving. Glance at the standings, and things are far from certain. But in the now, one of the quietest moves at a quiet deadline looks to have produced its quickest fit.