Nobody’s quite sure what to expect from the Jazz in the NBA’s cracked globe in Orlando. And that’s fitting, really, in a season that’s about as abnormal as the bounce of a lopsided, gutter-worn Spalding, having been kicked around the gym too many times.
After four months of no basketball at all, alongside fear and trembling — “Everybody’s concerned to a degree,” Emmanuel Mudiay said — caused by a virus that’s still filling hospitals and the mounted underscore of ongoing racial injustice repugnant now to all but haters, what’s it gonna be?
Anybody remember what it was before? Yeah, a team that had promise hanging from it like a chunk of squid on a hook, but with only sporadic bites noticed and catches landed. Or was it all just a tease, a setup for greater fulfillment, at last, the delayed realization of expectations unlike any the Jazz had stirred beforehand for two long decades?
Will observers and fans here, mixed metaphors or not, be surprised by what comes next? Can they be surprised — is that even possible — by what they already had expected heading in, and had had doused by too many off nights and poor showings, and now are a combination of dazed and doubtful?
Maybe surprise isn’t what anybody wants anymore in a season filled and then subverted by too much of it. When the ball went up for the first tip on a Wednesday night in October at Vivint Arena, Rudy Gobert facing off in the jump circle against Steven Adams, nobody had ever heard of COVID-19. If anyone had said the word coronavirus, others would have thought it meant somebody had been sickened by imbibing too much beer on a beach somewhere. Either way, when the Jazz won that game over OKC by five, everything seemed in order.
Donovan Mitchell went for 32 points that night, and Gobert owned the paint, causing the Thunder to hit just 38 percent of their shots. The only flare that burned through the air was Mike Conley’s line: he took 16 shots and made just one.
Reality slammed the Jazz in the forehead two nights later, when they got thumped on the road by the Lakers, and Conley made only 27 percent of his attempts.
No need to go game by game. Everyone experienced the weather without any call now for a detailed report on highs and lows and barometric pressure. It was cluttered at that point how the season would go — until it didn’t go at all on March 11, the Jazz walking off the court in Oklahoma City five minutes after taking it.
There was still a wide span inside the “good” range, where the Jazz had settled on most nights, but greatness — the ingredients necessary for authentic contention, the intended goal for the team, as spoken prior to by its own players — was beyond reach.
When the pandemic slammed the brakes on everything, that shortcoming didn’t seem so all-fired important anymore. The Jazz sitting fourth in the West, slogging through win streaks and losing skids? Mitchell and Gobert All-Stars? Bojan Bogdanovic’s emergence? Conley’s see-saw? As Vivint Arena went and remained dark, nothing seemed significant other than the health and safety of a community, a country, the world, and people hanging onto their employment.
With the Jazz reporting back for workouts and heading off to Walt’s World now, where does that leave their fan base? Hungry for basketball’s return? Or too numb to care?
Expectations, while not in the dumps, have sagged, slightly. Those evaluations by experts that had so confidently predicted the Jazz to be a legit dark horse for the conference finals against the Lakers or Clippers have evaporated. The last power ranking among the 22 teams gathering in Florida noticed here had the Jazz at 14. Bogdanovic’s injury is no help, nor are the questions that linger at least among some about Gobert’s and Mitchell’s connectedness.
Mitchell said the other day, though, it’s all good, or at least good enough.
“We’re going out there ready to hoop,” he said. “… There’s gonna be tension, there’s gonna be back and forth.”
Gobert concurred, rather sadly saying none of his relationships, personal and professional, are all that pristine, but … nevertheless, functional.
He added that he plans to win a championship in Utah.
Surprise, then, is the right word to describe any Jazz surge in the weeks ahead. Some, including coach Quin Snyder, say the team is together and fit to fight, even without Bogdanovic. Speaking for himself and his team, Georges Niang said the team “is excited to just get out there and play basketball again.”
Snyder said the Jazz have to — and can — be “nimble,” with Bogdanovic out and Conley having one eye on the court and another on his wife, who is expecting the couple’s next child to arrive in the weeks ahead. Conley will leave the bubble in advance of that arrival, and go through protocols thereafter to return, perhaps.
Others insist there’s just too much for the Jazz to overcome with too little talent, and that the optimism stirring in September and October, back when the world was more normal and less aware, was misplaced.
“We’re going to see how it goes,” said Mudiay.
Utah, indeed, has had its share of surprise, edging as it has toward shock, that nobody around here saw coming, which, of course, is inherent in the meaning of both of those words. A pandemic, and the lack of proper leadership and resolve to beat it, the divisive political rancor reaching such heights are both overwhelming, disturbing. Renewed calls — shouts — for social justice and their being heard and acted upon are long overdue. Events that stirred and amplified those voices — and some that didn’t — are tragic.
Much of 2020 can kick rocks, along with its surprises.
Finding proper place for basketball in the heap is a sports writer’s challenge. A sports fan’s, too. An athlete’s, as well.
Maybe, among mixed metaphors, the Jazz — baited hook or not, greater fulfillment beckoning — can conjure their own surprise in Orlando. The fact that nearly everyone doubts it gives definition to their very intentions, to the S-word that has dominated everyone’s existence over the past fistful of months.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.