by Daniel Olsen
There have been several stellar games in franchise history for the Utah Jazz on Christmas Day. Their record is now 6-2 which is the best winning percentage on this holiday excluding the Miami Heat and Portland Trailblazers. There are some familiar and not so familiar names among the top performances on December 25. It’s time to open the window to the ghost of Christmas past and re-live the fond memories that Jazz fans have on this day. The only criteria is that the players on this list actually win the games they are being judged on.
5. Rudy Gobert
The Stifle Tower brought beauty to the game of basketball when he was traded in the 2013 NBA Draft to the Utah Jazz. It didn’t happen all at once though. By the time he played in his first Christmas game, he had blossomed into the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
He shined in his first game with 18 points and 14 rebounds against the Portland Trailblazers. Even better, he held starting center Jusuf Nurkic to just seven points. The Jazz would win that game by 117-96 and Gobert was the biggest reason for that win. Nurkic wasn’t necessarily Hakeem Olajuwon, but it was still impressive to make a starting center a non-factor in the game. The strength of opponent was decent as the Blazers went on to win the Northwest Division and advance to the Western Conference finals where they were swept by the Warriors.
In 2021, Gobert has been on a tear and had the chance to prove that on a national stage. While his stat line was quiet, the modest double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds shows why he is leading the NBA in boards. When this is considered an off night, he is definitely having a great season.
The Jazz had to work a little harder in this game even without Luka Doncic. The home court advantage and the intensity the Jazz displayed in the waning minutes contributed to the win. Gobert had a more positive impact than many of the other starters as he had a positive plus/minus at +3. While his sidekick was -18, he was impressive in other ways that will be mentioned later.
This won’t be the last Christmas game Gobert plays in so he has time to move up this list. The expectations are just higher as he needs to put up a monster 20 rebound and four block night to receive the equivalent respect as the high scorers do. In the NBA, points are like receiving the coolest toy for Christmas and defensive stats are like receiving clothes. Both are great, but until you’re older it’s hard to appreciate how great the clothes really are.
4. John Stockton
While considered one of the best point guards ever, John Stockton was more of a shooter on Christmas for the Jazz. He scored over 20 points in both of his games played on Christmas. He played the Los Ángeles Lakers in 1988 and the Houston Rockets in 1997.
It is weird to say, but Magic Johnson with a double-double of 18 points and 10 assists was more of a facilitator than Stockton was on this night. Stockton still had eight assists to go along with his 21 points though. The 101-87 win was sweet revenge. The Lakers gave the Jazz a second round exit in a grueling seven game series of the 1988 NBA Playoffs.
1997 was an interesting year as they had to stave off a revenge attempt from the team that they had beaten to go to their first ever NBA Finals the year before. Stockton was the leading scorer of the game with 24 points and outshined all the stars on the court. Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler struggled to combine for 26 points. Kevin Willis did have 25 points for the Houston Rockets though.
While it is strange to think of Stockton as a scorer, he could do it when he wanted to. He was the guy who hit the shot to send the Jazz to the NBA Finals over the Rockets and he sent a message that he wasn’t done with them yet. The Jazz would go on to eliminate the Rockets again, this time in the first round of the 1998 NBA playoffs.
3. Donovan Mitchell
After a modest scoring night in 2018, Donovan Mitchell would have been only a fringe candidate on this list. The Jazz did win, but Gobert was still the Batman to his Robin that night.
In 2021, Mitchell decided to take a turn being Batman even though it wasn’t easy. He had to leave the court and head to the locker room in the first half as something wasn’t feeling quite right. Many of his missed shots were a little short. The Jazz had suffered an early double-digit deficit, but whittled the game down to take a two point lead at the half. Mitchell still had 21 points in the first half despite what would later be reported as a strain in his lower back.
In the second half, Mitchell found his stride. He scored 12 points, but they were all in critical moments. He did this while letting some of his teammates catch fire at the same time. He did his damage off a few short jumpers and plays at the rim. He proved in this game that he can definitely still dunk even while in pain.
In the fourth quarter, he had two three-point plays. One was from beyond the arc and the other was the old fashioned way. He passed Karl Malone for the second highest scoring performance for a Jazz player on Christmas Day. Had he not been hurt, perhaps he would have surpassed the top guy on this list.
2. Karl Malone
It was a tough choice at first to put Malone ahead of Mitchell here, but when taking a closer look, it wasn’t really. Malone had nearly the same point average as Mitchell and did it against tougher competition. He beat the defending champions in 1988 and a formidable playoff team in the Houston Rockets in 1997. The Mavericks aren’t the same team without Luka, and the Blazers overachieved to make the Western Conference Finals in the 2018-2019 season.
Malone had double-doubles in both wins. He had 31 points and 12 boards over the Lakers and 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Rockets. While Mitchell owns a slight edge in scoring, Malone has the overall edge on Christmas Day. Both are extremely talented players and perhaps we will see Mitchell a couple more times on Christmas to even the score.
There are more opportunities as there are now five games being broadcast every Christmas. The Jazz were one of just two games played on Christmas in 1988 and 1997. As long as the Jazz remain one of the top teams in the Western Conference, they will play in a couple more Christmas games in the near future.
1. Terry Furlow
While this guy isn’t as well known as the other guys behind him on this list, Terry Furlow has one thing the other Jazz players don’t have: the franchise single game Christmas scoring title. With 37 points in the first year in Utah for the franchise, Furlow was the talk of the town in 1979. They defeated the Denver Nuggets 122-111. Furlow was the Santa Claus that brought Christmas joy to fans in Utah before anyone else did.
While the Jazz struggled early on, Christmas has been a magical time. They haven’t lost a Christmas game since 1982. Both dynamic duos are now 2-0 on this festive day. Perhaps if the Jazz continue to replicate this magical success in the postseason, there will be two more statues outside Vivint Arena in the future.
Featured image courtesy Scott G Winterton, Deseret News