When the Utah Jazz reunited for training camp in December, they had had three months to think about how the previous season had ended: with potential triple winner Mike Conley somehow turning against the Denver Nuggets.
During those three months, the Jazz thought over and over again about that shot that was over, about the 3-1 lead they had lost in that series, about failing to make it out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. for one second. straight season. And they came back for the start of this campaign determined to make sure things were different this time.
“I really feel like we came back this year with a purpose,” Utah center Rudy Gobert said. “I really feel like we have a chip on our shoulder, and we need it if we’re going to do what we want to do this year.”
After their last win Tuesday night, a 122-108 decision over the visiting Boston Celtics, the Jazz are now the NBA’s best 20-5 this season and have won 16 of their last 17 games.
And unlike the other teams floating around it at the top of the NBA ecosystem, the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers, Utah doesn’t have a true superstar on its roster. Instead, what has brought the Jazz to this point for a third of the season is a cast that is working in perfect harmony.
The result is a team that is playing as well as anyone else in the league and is crushing their opponents every night.
“Every time you see a team shape itself for the players and coaches, it’s gratifying,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “When you have a team that tries to play collectively in a certain way and is committed to that, I think that’s what we have.”
Part of the commitment the Jazz have comes from the way they ended last season. The entire 2019-20 season, frankly, was a challenge for Utah. The team hoped to advance last year after trading for Conley, only for him to fight mightily to adjust to playing for a team other than the Memphis Grizzlies for the first 12 years of his career. The Jazz then added Jordan Clarkson to increase their score from the bench for the season, only to lose starting forward Bojan Bogdanovic to the team’s time in the Florida bubble due to wrist surgery.
And all of that, of course, pales in comparison to Utah, which was at the center of the league and closed last March for several months after Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the team’s two stars, tested positive for COVID-19.
But instead of all that, as well as Utah’s heartbreaking loss to Denver, which caused the Jazz to disband, instead sent them into the offseason determined to create something better.
“I think, you know, the most important thing was our motivation during the offseason,” Mitchell said. “Guys coming in. I look at Royce [O’Neale]. People don’t watch Royce because we don’t play on TV, but if you look at Royce, he came in in the best shape of his career this year. Determination in that sense. You see the product on the ground, but I think the most important thing is what you see on the ground.
“He and I went to Miami and trained three or four weeks in a row. The things I saw him do, I hadn’t seen him do in his four years. Not to say he doesn’t work hard, but he took it to another level.”
“I think that’s where we saw the difference. We saw the work ethic take another leap,” Mitchell explained.
What has helped the Jazz the most has been that, in a season with so much in the air for so many teams, Utah knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be.
After his initial growing pains last season, Conley, who is currently out with a hamstring injury, played better in the bubble and has been outstanding to start this season. Bogdanovic has returned from his wrist surgery and is beginning to take shape. Joe Ingles is shooting higher percentages of his career across the board. And Clarkson is the fugitive leader, right now, to win the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Meanwhile, the prominent player Utah added during the offseason, the great Derrick Favors, had spent the vast majority of his first nine seasons in Utah before being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans last offseason, leaving him extremely familiar with what what was it. the Jazz would want me to.
And of course the team has seen continued excellent play from its stars. Gobert remains the league’s top defensive player, anchoring a Jazz unit that, despite adding more offensive-minded players in recent years, still ranks third in the NBA. Mitchell, on the other hand, entered Tuesday shooting a career-best 41.6% from 3-point range, and that was before going 6-of-13 from 3-point range as part of his 36-point career best. mark in game.
Despite Mitchell’s shooting exploits, it was revealing after the game that what he, Snyder and Gobert talked about was Mitchell’s decision making: Playing point guard for the injured Conley, he had nine assists and just two losses from ball in 36 minutes.
“Decision making,” Gobert said, when asked where he has been Mitchell’s biggest improvement this season. “He is really able to understand the rhythm of the game and to be able to find his teammates.
“I think he has improved every year, but this year is really the year he has advanced, and when he does, the team goes to another level.”
The Jazz know what level they want to get to this season. It’s been 13 years since Utah last reached the Western Conference finals, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer took them there in 2008 and lost to the Lakers. It has been 23 years since Utah last reached the NBA Finals, when John Stockton and Karl Malone lost to the Chicago Bulls for the second consecutive season.
Time will tell if Utah has the ability to reach that level, although the numbers at least give them a fighting chance. Utah is the only team in the league in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. The only others in the top 10 in both categories? The Lakers and the Bucks. And while questions remain as to whether the Jazz will have a hard time stopping teams that can take Gobert away from the rim, Utah’s added hit offensively – the Jazz are leading the NBA at 17 triples per game – gives them an advantage. balance that they did not previously have.
And for those who aren’t sure how high Utah’s roof is, the Jazz will have plenty of opportunities over the next two weeks to make their case. Beginning with Tuesday’s win over Boston, the Jazz are on an eight-of-nine-game streak against some of the league’s elite teams: the Celtics, Bucks, Miami Heat (twice), Sixers, Lakers and Clippers (twice). times).
Ultimately, though, the Jazz are not worried about what happens over the next two weeks. Instead, it’s about being prepared for what’s still ahead, and making sure they don’t have the same bitter taste in their mouths at the end of this season as when they left Orlando in September.
“I think the most important thing is to focus on what we do,” Mitchell said. “This is the first game of a great streak that awaits us, and we have to focus on the small details. We have teams [scheduled] They have high-level players, deep playoff experience, and we just have to go out there and do what we do.
“It’s not like we’re saying this is decisive for us … We are not playing to be ready in February … we are playing to be ready in [July]. That’s when we have to have our best product, and these are good tests for us. “