In the aftermath of the Russell Westbrook incident and Gail Miller reminding everyone that they’re supposed to act like … you know, energetically charged, but decent human beings instead of animals at Jazz games, some people have said Vivint Smart Home Arena isn’t as loud or intimidating as it used to be, not as advantageous for the home team.
That’s exactly what the Jazz need: an advantage.
They do not need a looney bin in which a few fans engage in insulting, idiotic and even racist conversations with opposing players. They just need a looney bin. They need a place where they know they can win, a place that sounds like a squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers taking off from mid-court.
A good bit of that comfort has to come from the players, of course. They must earn the noise. They must play well at home, not just because the crowd is up for whatever opponent is there, but because they’ve dialed in on the kind of force and focus Quin Snyder has requested from them all season long. It’s up to the players to create the necessary space and place, too.
“We’re building on it,” Donovan Mitchell says. “We didn’t play well to start the year off. That’s the key for us. It’s up to us.”
The building in the building is building.
The Jazz lost their first four home games this season. They didn’t have a winning record at home until Jan. 11, when they beat the Lakers to get to 9-8. Since that time, they’ve won 16 of 20 at home, ascending toward a more reliable form.
Joe Ingles places all of the blame on the team, not the fans, when it has struggled.
“Playing here,” he says, “there’s such a difference. You hear it. I love that. There are times definitely when the fans have picked us up. We’re lucky we have a sellout or near-sellout every game. We’ve seen how the crowd gets up even more for big games. In the playoffs, it goes to another level. It’s a special place to play. Sometimes, you wish they weren’t so loud, so you could hear what coach is saying. I feel like it’s if not the best place to play, one of the best.”
Still, due in part to that aforementioned slow start, the Jazz have not dominated in Salt Lake. They are 25-12 on their home floor, and that includes the last couple of wins over bad opponents, like the Suns and Lakers, teams they could have beaten on the flattop of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Compare that home record to most of the best teams.
The Denver Nuggets and the Milwaukee Bucks are 31-6 at home. The Toronto Raptors are 30-9. The Sixers and Blazers are 29-9, the Pacers are 28-9. The Warriors and Bucks have identical — or nearly identical — road records to the Jazz’s record at home.
If the Jazz intend to elevate themselves into that company, they must protect their home court better than they have. Especially against playoff-caliber teams because those are the opponents who vexed them so severely early on, over that difficult stretch. Were the Jazz laboring and listing early because they played better teams, or because they weren’t as good at that time? Are they better now because they’ve authentically improved, or because the schedule has lightened up?
Even over their more successful span since that Lakers game in January, the teams that have beaten them at Vivint Arena are the Blazers, the Rockets and the Thunder, all potential first-round playoff foes, and an outlier, the Pelicans.
Overall, the only elite team that hasn’t really outperformed the Jazz at home is the Warriors, who are 26-11 at Oracle Arena. There are two explanations for that — first, the Warriors are moving to San Francisco next season, creating a weird home dynamic, and second, the Warriors are a rare collection of talent that knows it can goof around during the regular season, unburdened by mundane concerns of winning and losing at this place and point.
The Jazz are not that.
The fact that the Jazz have only five more wins at home than on the road, where they are 20-18, is both a positive and a negative. It’s important to win on the road. No team has won an NBA title with a losing road record since the late 1970s. On the other hand, the great Jazz teams of the past have always been great at home. The 1996-97 Jazz, a steep comparison for any Utah outfit, were 38-3.
It’s a lesson, then, for Mitchell’s and Rudy Gobert’s Jazz, just as it was for Stockton’s and Malone’s: Feed off the crowd. Win at home, no matter what time of year or who the opponent is, in preparation for what comes next.
Particularly as the playoffs close in.
Says Mitchell: “It’s on us now. The crowd here has a different gear for the playoffs. I know that.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.