A 50-point loss tends to be a wake-up call.
Here’s the reality that the Jazz will awaken to: They haven’t been very good yet through this season. And it’s no longer really that small of a sample size, either. Fully one-sixth of the season has already been completed.
Yes, they have a 7-7 record, which is bad, if non-catastrophic. There are asterisks on many of those wins, though. They beat Houston without Chris Paul, the Pelicans without Anthony Davis, the Celtics without Kyrie Irving. Beyond that they’ve defeated the Mavericks twice, Memphis once and Sacramento once. That’s, well, not a very impressive lineup of teams when you look at it, even if the Kings and Grizzlies are playing better than they did last season.
Furthermore, the Jazz are struggling at the core of their identity. The Jazz were the best defensive team in the league last season. Now the Jazz rank 20th defensively through these 14 games. What happened?
Talking to Jazz players and management, there’s a common thread: this team, thanks to the continuity and success they enjoyed last year, seemed to think it could waltz into the 2018-19 season and play at that same level. The losses, for the most part, are games in which the Jazz were favored coming in.
“I think we all could anticipate that [level of success], but you can’t have that anticipation," Donovan Mitchell said. "That’s not what got us here. We have to stay hungry and be the same team as last year.”
They haven’t been. The problems are myriad and fault lies up and down the roster, too. Perimeter players have found their way to easy shots way too frequently, as the Jazz get held up on screens or don’t rotate to adjust as they should. And even though the Jazz have Rudy Gobert, the best rim protector in the league at his best, they are letting teams shoot 64.4 percent near the rim, seventh-worst in the league. Gobert either isn’t doing his work early (see his work against Jaren Jackson Jr. of Memphis, for example) or is being asked to do too much thanks to what’s happening in front of him.
And the transition defense is weirdly awful. The Jazz just aren’t getting back on defense early in the season: Every time they brick a shot, the other team is scoring 131.8 points per 100 possessions on the next play. And if you’ve seen the Jazz play this week, you know there have been plenty of bricks.
“We just gotta get our mind right. Maybe some of us are thinking about the wrong s--- before the game," Gobert said. "We just have to get our mind right as a team, think about defense and the rest will take care of itself.”
There’s also sort of a meta-fear among Jazz watchers, too. Because the Jazz turned around so completely last season, it’s fair to worry that the Jazz think that comeback, too, is something they can easily pull off again this year, just like the defense. Instead of treating it like the nearly unprecedented thing that it was, the Jazz might take the turnaround for granted too.
So when you ask Mitchell about if the Jazz’s 50-point loss to Dallas is their January loss to Atlanta last year — i.e., rock bottom — he’s smart enough to know what the right answer is.
“Last year is last year. I don’t want to say ‘Yeah, this is Atlanta,’ and then we’ll go win 13 straight. We have to take it game by game," Mitchell said. "We lost by 50. We’re going to play against two title contenders in the Eastern Conference, and we have to come out ready. If we come out with that performance, it might be much worse.” That, truthfully, is hard to imagine.
Mitchell and his Jazz teammates are certainly smart, but you can’t simply outsmart an 82-game season. Fight is also required, and on Wednesday night, they didn’t show any. Does this loss shock them enough to get them out of their slumber?
This weekend will be an initial test.
JAZZ VS. SIXERS
At Wells Fargo Center
Tipoff • Friday, 5 p.m. MST
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 7-7; Sixers 9-7
Last meeting • Sixers, 107-86 (Nov. 20, 2017)
About the Jazz • Raul Neto has been called up to the Jazz after missing the season’s first 14 games due to hamstring issues. ... Jazz are coming off 50-point loss, the biggest loss since the team moved to Utah in 1979. ... 68-point performance Monday was the lowest scoring game in the NBA this year by 12 points.
About the Sixers • The game will be the Sixers home debut of Jimmy Butler, acquired this week in a trade with Minnesota. ... Zhaire Smith and Justin Patton both are out due to long-term foot injuries. ... Joel Embiid is third in the NBA in scoring with 27.6 points per game, tied with the Lakers' LeBron James.