This is not the column I intended to write, on a game the Jazz did not intend to play, on a defeat they did not intend to suffer.
That initial piece included questions about the Jazz’s final 20 games, the ease of them, the breezy winning that would come, and what that would mean for the postseason.
The Jazz were supposed to beat the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night, just the way they are supposed to beat most of the teams remaining on their schedule, determined by some to be the weakest in the NBA.
If the Jazz really were favored in nearly every one of those last games, and they went ahead and won most of them, as expected, what exactly would that mean for what matters most … the playoffs? It would help them gain a more favorable seed in the West, but what else would it do for them?
Would it make them soft heading into those playoffs?
Would it have been better for them had some of these easier games been mixed into the earlier parts of the regular season to build their numbers before now, giving them just as many wins at the end, but allowing them to play better teams down the stretch and en route toughen up for the second season?
But then, Monday night’s fourth quarter happened. A loss to one of those so-called easier teams happened, after the Jazz had taken out Denver and Milwaukee. This would be a cake-eater, right?
It would not be. The Jazz had their cake crammed back into their grille, after building and blowing a 17-point lead. And a projected win turned into an all-too-authentic loss.
So that called for a Plan B column. This column. A what-the-hell-was-that-against-the-Pelicans column.
Everybody saw what happened. The Jazz played sometimes-beautiful basketball … for about 42 minutes. The last six would be classified as something less than comely, as the Jazz carelessly turned the ball over, heaved the ball at the basket, and gagged big-time. They squandered that large lead.
They were, as Kyle Korver put it in a team huddle during a late timeout, “playing with fire.”
“When you play with fire,” Donovan Mitchell repeated, afterward, “you get burned.”
The Jazz were a five-alarmer at the end.
“Mistakes always hurt you,” Quin Snyder said, especially when your focus wilts. “You put yourself in a position where you have to score. … Our M.O. is we’ve got to play defense. We didn’t have the level of defense that we need from an execution standpoint. When that happens, you can get beat and we got beat tonight.”
This stuff happens. It just typically doesn’t happen to motivated teams that have mastered the mental part of preparing for a game, primed for a advantageous stretch drive.
Those teams don’t capitulate to, in Snyder’s words, a “dry spell” at an “inopportune time.”
Here are a couple of simple facts: The Jazz are better than the Pelicans, they had the home floor, they had momentum, they had the lead, and they folded in the game’s closing minutes, as a win stretched out its arms for them.
They ghosted victory.
“We didn’t have enough urgency,” Rudy Gobert said. “We didn’t fight.”
It was just one game. The Jazz will have their chance to beat the Pelicans again on Wednesday night. But here’s the danger in that lack of urgency and fight: You never know when it will emerge. If the Jazz make a habit of losing to teams they are better than, they face the prospects of frittering away the hard-earned advances they’ve made.
They went through the rough stretches early on, and came back to smooth their way for a while, to climb back into positioning in the West that seemed to give them opportunity to finish as high as third in the standings.
After the All-Star break, they beat the Clippers, the Nuggets, the Bucks. And now … looking to cruise on home, they lost to an inferior team. They didn’t do the things they knew they had to do to win.
If they knew they had to do them, and they were capable of doing them, then why didn’t they do them?
It is a question that has baffled and frustrated coaches since a basket was first hammered onto a wall.
“Our whole team needed to guard,” Snyder said.
They, of course, were well aware. But they neglected to do it.
“We just kept making certain mistakes,” Mitchell said, counting among them turnovers, bad shots, and whiffing on defense. “Eventually, they capitalized on them.”
He paused, making sure everyone understood that he and his teammates would learn from and live past Monday’s blunders: “We’re not freaking out.”
Nor should they.
But Gobert spoke truth after the loss, saying: “It’s not about them, it’s about us. No matter who we play, we’ve got to start the game with the same urgency as when we play the best teams in the league. Just compete.”
Just beat lesser teams.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.