When world-renowned basketball physicist Quin Snyder was asked to describe the state of his Jazz team before playing the second-best outfit in the West on Wednesday night, a thousand options for answering swirled around in his brain, some of them slamming into one another, like exploding atoms in a particle accelerator.
What rocketed out after a couple of nanoseconds was not a handy little soundbite. It was a rambling blast of realism, followed by optimism. Take a deep breath and follow along:
“Good,” he said. “I felt like we were playing really, really well. We kind of found a groove, particularly with Dante and Kyle and Favors and Joe and Jae, that second group was playing really well. Dante was playing really well, so that [injury] knocked us back, and then we lost Ricky, and that knocked us back. And then Raul. So there was a sense that, ‘Well, we were playing well and now we’re going to have to survive.’
“There was some of that, some urgency that brought us together. We were able to still play well in a different way, with Donovan and Joe being our primary ball-handlers. Now, we’re trying to reintegrate Ricky, which is really important.
“I felt like we were getting better, getting better, and that’s been the focus to keep improving. And we’ve done it with our defense. That hasn’t changed. If we can continue to get some people healthy and find continuity on offense, that will help us. I think Rudy’s really been terrific. We’ve ridden him a little bit, and then Donovan, as well, with his playmaking. Those two guys have to be good for us to be good. They have been. As we get healthy we can continue to improve. We can play better as the season goes on.”
Nothing that happened in the following nitro-heated hours altered his line of thinking. After the Jazz straightaway stood up a furious, physical effort by the Denver Nuggets and took a this-is-who-we-really-are victory, Snyder was a bit more succinct.
“We focused,” he said.
In what felt like one of the most important games of the season, important to the Jazz and important to their opponent, Snyder’s team did focus. It did more than that — it jumped right in that particle collider, spinning up to light speed and smashed directly into Nikola Jokic and his teammates, who had previously won twice as many games as they had lost.
Here’s what the Jazz really did: They played to their potential.
And when they do that, they can be as good as, better even, than any team in the Western Conference, outside of the Golden State Warriors. They can be one of the best teams in the league — a status some observers, not just fans, had predicted for them, expected of them, before this season started.
Their record (27-22) to this juncture has neither substantiated, nor indicated that. The Jazz have been far too inconsistent, initially at the defensive end and then, once that was corrected, on attack. On some nights, the nights the Jazz won, they were rocksteady, sometimes spectacular on D, and competent, moving the ball and splashing it at the other end.
On the nights they lost, as recently as Monday at home against Portland, they went through significant stretches when the basket was out there, somewhere, but nowhere to be found.
So, what makes the difference?
Two words, a couple of those Snyder favorites: focus and urgency.
Go back and study Jazz wins and losses, the early tough schedule be damned. When the Jazz play dialed-in, determined ball, their chances at victory soar. They may lose some games against top-drawer teams when they lock in, but their positive percentages arc way upward.
That’s what happened a year ago, when the Jazz fired off on their 29-6 finish, and won their first-round playoff series against the Thunder, all of which is what set expectations so high this time around.
The Jazz were a bunch of desperados. They were bad, bad mothers.
Yes, there were scheduling advantages over that remarkable span, but the Jazz tapped into an inner sense of pride and grit to find effort and fortitude that, plainly spoken, has been less apparent over stretches this season.
Some things have been assumed rather than earned.
None of that was evident on Wednesday night against their talented Rocky Mountain rival. It wasn’t even that the Jazz played within shouting distance of perfection. Precision was found essentially in only one area — 3-point shooting, from which they hit 41.3 percent of their attempts, making a surprising 19 of them. They also stacked up 28 assists.
But overall, the Nuggets shot 47.7 percent to the Jazz’s 43 percent, they grabbed 10 more rebounds, and blocked two more shots.
Yet, the Jazz won.
They scratched, clawed, barked, shoved and shot their way. Even Derrick Favors — are you kidding? — went all Tyson on Mason Plumlee, darn-near triggering a full-on brawl, getting both of them tossed. In that sequence, everybody got jammed up under the basket, players bunching together with either good or bad intentions, guys in suits flying off the bench to intercede, papers scattering across the court, machismo going throttle up. Royce O’Neale got T’ed up. Later, Jae Crowder mouthed off to Jokic, who mouthed back.
It was glorious, plucky, playoff-style basketball.
And in the midst of it, the Jazz rediscovered and used their old familiar bromides — hunger, hard work, hustle and heart — to prove a point. They are one of the best teams in the West.
That is the key here. The Jazz need a point to prove, their pride to be pricked. That’s what made them what they became last season and that’s what has been absent for too much of this one.
Snyder can and will break it down from a strategic standpoint, covering every aspect at both ends. He’ll talk about communication and connectivity on defense, about scrambling opponents’ will to defend, about finding the right angles and spacing with his blended offensive structure and attacks in isolation. All of which is good.
He’ll be realistic and optimistic.
But what the Jazz really need is to get poked in the face and laughed at. They need to be disrespected. They need offense, and not the kind you usually think of when talking about basketball. They need to be offended. They need to care, not just care, they always care to a degree, but to care to the point where they unleash the beast.
If they do that, not just against the Nuggets, but against the Timberwolves and the Pelicans and the Kings and the Blazers and the Spurs, they will be what the West is afraid they might be.
Desperados. Bad, bad mothers.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.