Monson: The streaking Jazz are rising — and fighting — together
(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Ricky Rubio (3) passes around Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (8) during the game at Vivint Smart Home Arena Thursday, March 15, 2018. Utah Jazz defeated Phoenix Suns 116-88.
As Dante Exum took the floor in live action for the first time in what seemed like forever on Thursday night, his presence in some measure mirrored the rise of his team in his absence.
What had once been injured, been down in the dumps, was now healed, now ascending toward hope for a brighter future.
In that mix of regeneration and re-emergence of the Jazz, what with them now winning 20 of 22 games after a 116-88 victory over the Suns, came the regeneration and re-emergence of the young player.
“He did a real good job,” were the words Quin Snyder used afterward.
Exum, with 10 points, three boards and two assists, had bubbled up, again, from the dark-cold deep. Just like his team, which rolled.
Not so suddenly, the bad memory of a bleak day in free agency in July and the devastation of losses in December seemed like a long, long time ago. Same for Exum and the shoulder ache and heartbreak of October, when he ran off the court in pain.
Exum’s teammates happen now to be burning up the league, playing at a level that hasn’t been seen in Utah since the 1996-97 and 1997-98 Jazz teams, the only other franchise iterations to offer that kind of streaking prowess.
“We’re staying in the moment,” Donovan Mitchell said.
The occasion of Dante’s return was nice. When he entered the game at the 1:16 mark of the first quarter and the crowd cheered, it got real dusty in Vivint Arena. Only the hardest of hearts didn’t tick up a notch as the kid — he’s still only 22 — took the court.
Nobody needs reminding that for all of Utah’s 68 regular-season games until now this season and for all of its games in 2015-16, Exum had been unavailable, the cruel fates pushing him out from under the bright lights to solitary rehab rooms, completely off stage, to nurse knee and shoulder injuries, retraining joints to respond as they once had.
Exum learned in an extreme manner what many pro athletes face at some point in their careers: That the extraordinary body that once had seemed so strong, so immortal, actually was vulnerable to hurt and harm. And that the power of the mind was what had to be relied upon to bring the body back.
The limited minutes (14) Exum got against the Suns were inconsequential to the final score, but not to him and not to his team.
“It was awesome,” Mitchell said.
Exum will more tangibly help his teammates on down the line. Exactly how he will fit in moving forward is still to be determined.
Come what may, he’s jumping aboard a happy, confident road-grader.
What’s happening with the Jazz these days is nothing short of a celebration of basketball. They were injured by the past, by the free-agency loss of he who shall not be named. There was an acclimation period for new players, the injury to Rudy Gobert, a brutal stretch of scheduling in early winter, and through all of that Snyder kept working, kept scheming, kept encouraging his players to focus on fundamental ball, on staying together.
And the reward for that has been an extraordinary run — a record of 23-6 over the past 29 games, 11 straight road wins, the ongoing 20-2 mark, and playoff contention.
The success has been born out of a glorious brew of psychology — confidence, but not fatheadedness, determination at both ends, defense since Gobert’s return that has been the NBA’s best by a wide margin, and efficient offense that nobody expected.
It wasn’t that long ago that experts said the Jazz’s problem, particularly after the departure of You-Know-Who, was they didn’t have enough star power. Now pillars Gobert and Mitchell have made that notion laughable.
But there’s more here. Mitchell’s play has been stellar, and Gobert’s defense sick. Yet, this is bigger than just the NBA standard — get a couple of stars and you’re on your way.
It’s different. Better. Promising. Connected.
When guys named Ingles, Rubio, O’Neale and Jerebko are playing key roles for a team led by its two stars, sweet things occur.
The teamwork the Jazz have displayed, the movement of the ball, the whoever-is-open-should-let-it-fly mentality, the bump-the-opponent-off-his-preferred-spot toughness, is entertaining and effective. On Thursday night, when Rubio was roughed up by a couple of Suns players, Jazz teammates were there for him, ready to rumble.
“There’s a camaraderie, a sense of brotherhood,” Snyder said. “They’re going to defend each other.”
The Jazz got off to that dismal start this season, but they learned from it, just like Snyder said they would. Now, they are playing as well as any Jazz team ever has, including those great ones.
If they climb to the fourth/fifth/sixth spot in the West, avoiding the Warriors and Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, they have a shot at surprising the league even more.
Indeed, Exum and his Jazz teammates are rising — and now they can rise together.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.