Let us begin with the news weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of Jazz observers everywhere — Donovan Mitchell has made a full and complete recovery from his thoracic spasms.
And Rudy Gobert has likewise miraculously bounced back from his bout of left ankle soreness.
It’s OK to exhale, people. They’ll be playing in the playoffs after all.
Now then, about all those other guys who’ve been populating the team’s injury reports of late … Derrick Favors finally returned from a multi-game absence due to back spasms on Tuesday vs. the Nuggets before sitting out the next night vs. the Clippers so as not to have to play in a back-to-back. Kyle Korver remained out Wednesday with right knee soreness. Point guards Ricky Rubio (left quad contusion) and Raul Neto (left ankle soreness) were similarly on the shelf.
Utah has been short-handed more often than not these last few weeks, it seems, but has been getting by largely unscathed owing to a late-season schedule dominated by lottery-bound opposition. They cannot afford to try to “get by” once their first-round playoff series begins Sunday against the Houston Rockets. Will they have to?
When pressed before the Clippers contest as to the seriousness of their ailments — did they legitimately need as much time away as they each had to properly recover and recuperate, or could they and would they have played if the matchups they missed were instead, say, playoff games? — coach Quin Snyder gave a long and labyrinthine response that in no way actually answered the question.
In the portion of Friday’s practice open to the media, Favors was sitting on the sideline, chatting with assistant coach Antonio Lang. Korver was taking part in a shooting drill, but had a big wrap on his right knee, was hardly elevating on jumpers, and did not incorporate much movement into his routine. Both Rubio and Neto were taking part in individual movement and shooting drills. Snyder again, though, wouldn’t get into specifics on who would or wouldn’t play.
What the Jazz are not in the slightest reticent to discuss, in contrast, is the way those players’ injuries and absences have, counterintuitively, potentially strengthened the team, by way of constantly forcing other players to produce when shoved by necessity into newfound opportunities.
“We always say ‘the strength of the team is the team,’ and I think that is very true. We back that up in how we play, and in how one guy will just step up when one guy, unfortunately, has to go out,” said rookie Grayson Allen. “There’s been so many different positions and roles throughout the year, we’ve experimented with so many different lineups, but we’ve still been able to be successful and get wins because guys are ready to step up, guys are buying into the team … and just getting the job done.”
Allen himself is as apt an indication of that as any.
After frequently appearing overwhelmed or at least overmatched early in the season, the Duke product was frequently deployed to the G League affiliate Salt Lake City Stars to get additional training and game reps. In recent weeks, with the Jazz’s backcourt ravaged by injuries (with Rubio and Neto joining Dante Exum on the sidelines), there were myriad games where Allen’s presence was needed, if only to, at the very least, provide a warm body to fill some rotation minutes.
He ultimately did much more than that. On April 3, against the Suns, he established a new career-high in scoring, with 14 points. In the very next game, on April 5 vs. the Kings, he blew past that mark with 23. And then Wednesday in Los Angeles, with half of his own team sitting out, and admittedly against a foe that likewise had no incentive to go particularly hard, Allen shocked and amazed by pouring in 40 points.
And while the rookie has been the most extreme example of a bench player doing his part to keep the machine running smoothly, he’s hardly been the only one.
“This team is just full of guys who are ready to play at any time, whether it’s Georges [Niang], Grayson, Naz [Mitrou-Long], Tyler [Cavanaugh], Thabo [Sefolosha],” said Mitchell. “Whoever it may be, I think guys are always ready, always prepared. In practice you see it — guys are locked in.”
Snyder, asked how his team had gotten in such a groove by season’s end in spite of a decided dearth of continuity, gently pushed back on that idea. But he ultimately conceded that having guys prepared to jump in at a moment’s notice ultimately couldn’t be a bad thing for his group.
“Well, it’s hard to have too much groove when all three of your point guards are out, but I think that says something about the guys, it says something about the mentality of the team,” he said. “There’s different ways to play, and every lineup that you put on the floor has to find its own identity. Hopefully we get some of those guys back — it’s not something we’re dwelling on, other than the fact, obviously, we want them back and they want to be back. But there’s certain things, no matter who’s playing, that we want to do — we want to be able to share the ball, and we want to defend. Different matchups, different guys in different situations, but as long as we focus on those things, we’ll get something out of it and hopefully keep playing good basketball.”