There’s a blemish on their record so far, so the Utah Jazz can’t be fully satisfied.
But for taking on a trio of Western Conference opponents, all of whom gained star players in the offseason, 2-1 is not so bad.
“I think it is [a good result],” Thabo Sefolosha said, matter-of-factly. “We’re not yet where we want to be, but I think we gotta take it a day at a time and keep improving.”
One week into the new season, maybe the Jazz’s predicted regression without Gordon Hayward has been overstated.
Utah came away with two wins, both at home, both against teams that have been picked by experts to beat them out in playoff seeding this year. And what’s interesting is that it’s happened without any big surprises. The Jazz have been exactly what they’ve been promising they would be: a defensive-minded, unselfish basketball team.
It’s telling that not only are the Jazz ranked seventh in defensive rating in the league so far, but they’re also ranked fourth in assist percentage. Their leading scorer? It’s a three-way tie between Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles (14.7 ppg).
“I tried to tell them,” Gobert said Saturday night as he buttoned his shirt in the Jazz locker room. “No one listened.”
The term “small sample size” is chanted to death in the early season, but the Jazz have given three solid performances that give a glimpse of what they can be.
On defense, they smother. Denver and Oklahoma City both got a taste of what it was like to try to find easy shots against the Jazz, which is a difficult task.
The Jazz have also shot better than their opponents in each of the three games.Adding a ring of perimeter defenders who can poke and prod at ball-handlers has also had a huge effect: Opponents are turning the ball over on almost 19 percent of possessions, which is second-best in the league.
The defensive prowess has been particularly pronounced on the second unit, which has keyed some of the biggest Jazz runs and leads by holding opposing benches to scant opportunities. Ekpe Udoh, who came back to the NBA after two years in Turkey, has been a revelation to fans, if not to the players themselves who realized quickly he could help anchor the second unit.
“We could see that coming,” Sefolosha said. “That’s our strength. We’re going to play to our strength. The way we communicate and get connected, our team defense. Ekpe has played amazing this week, and he will keep playing that way.”
Sharing, the other staple of Utah’s first three games, has stemmed much in part from Ricky Rubio, who became only the third Jazz guard to start the season with 20 assists in the first two games. His dynamic passing ability has helped not only Rudy Gobert, who has been rolling to the rim hard, but also Derrick Favors, who has been on the end of a few Rubio dishes for more midrange shots.
That willingness to pass, Ingles said, filters down when the team has a leader who is willing to share. On one possession in the fourth quarter against the Thunder, Rubio, Joe Johnson and Thabo Sefolosha all passed up 3-point shots — but they found a wide-open Ingles who drilled his look.
“It just kind of goes down the line when one of your leaders gives up the ball as much as [Rubio] does,” Ingles said. “It’s a fun way to play.”
That formula has helped the Jazz start the season 2-1, with only a Jamal Crawford corner 3-pointer standing between them and an undefeated record.
Of course the measure of Utah’s season will be in its endurance. Can the Jazz keep it up? A Tuesday game against the Clippers on Tuesday will help test their mettle, particularly if Rodney Hood remains sidelined with a calf strain.
That might’ve been one of the reasons why coach Quin Snyder wasn’t quick to say, “I told you so.” There’s plenty of work left to do.
But as far as starts go, it’s been a good first week.
“On the back end of a back-to-back, it’s easy to give in if you’re down early,” Ingles said. “We came out with the right energy and the right attitude.”