Thirty minutes after the Jazz lost for the fifth time in six games, in a third consecutive blowout, Donovan Mitchell sat in front of his locker, staring straight ahead.
Veteran Jeff Green, in a nearby locker, tried to talk him through the frustration.
“We’re low, to be honest with you. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. We’re not where we want to be,” Green said afterwards. “The last six games, we kind of took a couple steps back from the progress that we had going into, you know, that road trip.”
The unassailable fact is that the Jazz lack an identity right now. Under Quin Snyder, the Jazz have prided themselves on being a stout defensive team that shares the ball on offense; right now, both are missing. They’ve slipped from first to 10th defensively in the last two weeks. They’ve been an elite transition defense team in years past, and now they’ve slipped to 16th there, per CleaningTheGlass.
Snyder pointed to a lack of play-to-play focus from the players as a source of the problem.
“In the beginning of the year there was a determination and a focus defensively and it showed. More recently, we’ve allowed other things, whether it be a missed shot, the perception of a bad call, a turnover — everything is lingering,” Snyder said. “Our inability to get to the next play I think has hurt our defense and that, being collectively focused on something, requires five guys playing together.”
GRIZZLIES AT JAZZ
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
In a span of two-and-a-half minutes in the third quarter of Wednesday’s game, the Jazz allowed three backdoor cuts to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic couldn’t figure out how to deal with the simple action. That led to some bickering on the court, as the Jazz tried to figure it out.
“I think that was one of the most productive [conversations] we had," Mitchell said. "I think there are times we need to go back and forth, and the end of the day it was my fault and he let me know it. I think that’s what makes us better.”
Perhaps some of the defensive tension comes from the Jazz’s offensive my-turn, your-turn slog. They now rank 27th in the league in assists, and the offense looks nothing like the rotating wheel of layups and dunks that Snyder refers to as “the blender.” Their shot selection is ugly, ranking 24th in the league by pbpstats.com’s model.
Just from the eye test, ignoring the stats, there were multiple times where Bogdanovic stood with his arms in the air then threw them down in frustration, waiting for a pass that never came.
Everyone involved knows what Jazz basketball stands for, but they couldn’t be farther from executing it.
“It’s stuff that you can control,” Mitchell said. "I think you look at what we did at the beginning the year, how we took care of and shared the ball. And then what we have been doing the past six games is not who we are. There isn’t really much Coach can say, it’s on us in the locker room to figure it out.”
Here’s the good news, as Green pointed out to Mitchell in that conversation: they have an opportunity to bounce back, starting with their next game.
“The great thing about the NBA is, we’ve got a couple of games ahead of us that we can win. We’ve got two days to practice, which should be great for us to get back to our roots," Green said. "You know, we’re going to go into tomorrow with the game plan to get better. We can’t get too down on ourselves. To me, it’s too early in the season.”
It’s true. Memphis at home on Saturday is definitely an opportunity to get a win. After that, they face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, and the Golden State Warriors again on Friday. It’s four games in a row the Jazz should probably win, if they’re to be a good team.
Expectations are higher this year, though. In each of the past five years, they’ve had a slow start, and they’ve finished strong. In the past three years, they’ve made the playoffs with around 50 wins, then lost in the first or second round. The new acquisitions this summer were supposed to push them above that barrier, not just back to it. And in order to get to the conference finals or even the NBA Finals, they’ll need to beat teams like the Lakers, who made the gap between the two teams seem like a chasm on Wednesday.
There is historical precedent for a team scuffling to this degree early in the season, then coming back to win it all. Of the title winners in this millennium, two had stretches where they lost five out of six games: the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. Both actually lost six straight in their early-season downturns, and the Pistons even added on another five-of-six loss stretch elsewhere in the year. Both show that the turnaround the Jazz are attempting here is plausible — unlikely, but plausible.
“We think we can contend too. We’re not playing like it right now, but that’s the standard that we want to have for ourselves,” Gobert said. “Can we do it every night? Is it important enough? That’s the real question.”