The Jazz were headed south.
As the new year dawned, Utah owned a record of 15-17 after five losses in six games, including blowouts against Indiana, Miami and Golden State.
The Jazz capped their worst stretch of the season by losing back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Clippers.
To make matters worse, Utah discovered it would be going forward without starting point guard Mo Williams, who tore a thumb ligament Dec. 22.
Heading into Saturday night’s rematch with the Clippers, however, the Jazz have done what seemed unimaginable only seven weeks ago.
Utah is 31-24 — a season-high seven games over .500 — and in contention for a Western Conference playoff berth. Along the way, the Jazz avenged their losses to Miami, Indiana and Golden State. They also defeated Oklahoma City. Coach Tyrone Corbin credits his players for accomplishing one of the most difficult tasks in professional sports: turning around a season that seemed lost.
“Great character,” Corbin said. “These guys are proud guys. They want to win. They understand the sacrifices they all have to make for us, as a team, to be successful. That’s sharing the ball, playing the minutes you play and being a good teammate.”
Asked if he was concerned when the Jazz appeared to be dropping out of the playoff race, center Al Jefferson shook his head.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “Things are going to go bad. ... You are going to have ups and downs. But you have to stay together and trust what you’re doing.
“When we were going through that little time, we knew what it was. We knew were weren’t being aggressive on the defensive end. So we picked that up.”
Teammate Paul Millsap sees the difference, too.
“Our whole attitude has changed,” he said. “We’re more committed to winning. It’s not about one guy or two guys. We’re all part of this — trying to win.”
Jazz want to avoid sweep against Clippers
The Clippers have not swept a season series from Utah since 1978-79, before the Jazz relocated from New Orleans.
On Dec. 3, Utah squandered a 14-point lead and lost, 105-104.
On Dec. 28, the Jazz blew a 19-point lead and lost, 116-114.
Two nights later, L.A. pulled away in the fourth quarter and won, 107-96.
“The Clippers are a good ball club,” Corbin said. “It’s going to be a good test for us, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Said Jefferson: “It’s a game we need to get. … We feel like we match up well with them and have a chance to beat them.”
Williams continues to rehab his injured thumb, although he has not started contact work in practice and there is no timetable to do so.
“With each day that passes,” Corbin said, “he’s in a little less pain and getting more comfortable where his thumb is.
“The strength is coming back. The flexibility is coming back in his thumb. … He’s doing as much as he can to get himself ready.”