A single realization the Jazz understand more than anything about this particular season, at least at this particular time, they got from coach Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s much more a journey than a destination. An imperfect journey. Talk to any or all of them, they know it.
Foremost among them, their leaders, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
“The last two were winnable games,” Mitchell said after Monday night’s home loss to Minnesota. “It gets frustrating. But we’ll fix it. This is fixable. It’s still November. I don’t think I’m gonna go 5-for-24 most nights. Bojan’s not gonna foul out most games. We’ll be in good shape.”
Said Gobert, after Wednesday night’s comeback road win over the Timberwolves: “We are slowly getting there.”
On the night of a loss, on the night of a win, doesn’t matter. They get it.
If they didn’t, they’d lose their minds and their edge. In a grind like the NBA’s, where teams and players are measured quantifiably after every outing in a thousand different ways, that’s not easy to keep in place, not for competitors who live and play in the moment.
Not even when you move the ball like proton beams in a particle collider, making seven bombs in the final seven minutes to win by eight.
These guys are humans, not automatons, physically exaggerated and talented as they are. Those skills must be shepherded by a perspective, an attitude that helps them learn from the dips and the peaks, statistical and otherwise, but not be buried or inflated by them.
The way the Jazz suffered defeat to Memphis and Minnesota was nearly enough to make Mitchell want to punch something. But there are times, too, when he wants to punch himself because few players at his age are as self-aware as he is. Aware of darn near everything. What went right, what went wrong, and why it went in either direction.
He was equally aware after the Jazz’s bounce-back win.
In Game 1 against the Timberwolves, Mitchell and his teammates were in an uncomfortable place, slopping through stupid-weak stretches, such as the one they created for themselves near the end of the first quarter into the second, when they missed shots, blew defensive assignments, handled the ball as though they were wearing boxing gloves, committed fouls, offensive and defensive, while their lead turned to vapor. Same near the end.
They struggled to play sound defense when Gobert wasn’t on the floor. And then, later, Gobert got torched from deep by Karl-Anthony Towns.
When the Jazz couldn’t extend a late six-point lead, Minnesota stormed through them, as they scattered shots, short and long.
It was a temporarily troubling loss.
“We didn’t get stops, we missed shots,” said Jeff Green.
“We’ve got to watch film and see what we can do better,” Gobert said.
They did, and handled their business on Wednesday night.
And, still, Quin Snyder said afterward: “We’ve got to get better at a lot of things.”
Others joined in on the evaluation, but never seeming to collapse into it, confidently winning Game 2 and looking forward, knowing the distance from where the Jazz are right now is a far reach from where they aim to be, where they need to be when the regular season transfers into the playoffs.
On the other hand, the West is so tight, every result matters for positioning.
So while the Jazz care deeply about what happens right this minute, this night, this game, this possession, either finding brief satisfaction in it or fleeting frustration, they keep in their consciousness that what’s true in the present isn’t binding in the future.
With one exception, Emmanuel Mudiay said: “If we want to be a great team, the full effort has to be there every night. We go through spurts where we have to keep our heads in the game. We know we have another level we can reach.”
What emerges as truth five out of six nights, or six out of eight, or 10 out of 14, is more likely to be permanently scripted.
That’s why Quin Snyder talks as though what happened against the T-Wolves in both games means the world, but, conversely, it’s more about the process, the team’s direction, their ability and willingness to make course corrections.
“Competition needs to teach us, show us where we need to be better,” he said. “We’ve done that, for the most part. … You have to want more and I think this group wants more. Whether you win by 10 or lose by 10, it’s a long year. You’d like to be able to learn when you’re winning.”
That dichotomy, especially on an evolving outfit like the Jazz, is significant.
Play like the game at hand is the breath of life. But then put it in its place, alongside all the other breaths — positive and negative — and breathe on, grasping not just what the truth is, but what it can be.
That education can alter the truth, and maybe reveal that the Jazz bench needs to be strengthened.
What Snyder wants to see is evidence of fundamental focus and authentic growth. If somebody makes an error now, don’t make it next week. That was true two seasons ago, when the Jazz weren’t in a position to contend in the West, and it’s factual now that they might be.
At the moment, the Jazz are 9-5. Are they that good? Are they better? Are they worse? Bill Parcells said teams are what their record says they are.
But there’s a lot of road for the Jazz yet to cover, and that winding, undulating, ascending avenue gives them the opportunity, as much as the challenge, to be more than what they currently are. If it is properly traveled.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.