Joe Ingles remembers the first time the Jazz convened for the 2017-18 NBA season.
He looked to his left and saw Thabo Sefolosha and Ricky Rubio. Their reputations preceded them, so he knew what they brought: tough and gritty defenders, smart veterans, all-around good guys on and off the floor.
Ingles glanced to his right. He saw Donovan Mitchell, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh: a dynamic rookie, a former Boston Celtic and an overseas star who had once been a lottery pick.
During his Jazz tenure, Ingles had dealt with mostly the same cast of teammates. Now, after a summer of upheaval, the Jazz were a different group, carrying a different set of expectations.
“We just have to find a way to make it all work,” Ingles said to himself at the time.
As the Jazz prepare to face the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night, they will do so as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. They are a team that has won 21 of its last 23 games. They are 40-30 overall and on a nine-game winning streak.
They are also the team nobody saw coming. If you thought the Jazz would reach such heights last July when Gordon Hayward left for the Boston Celtics, or in November when Rudy Gobert went down to injury, or in January when the Jazz were 19-28, you are in an extreme minority.
Part of what makes the Jazz’s recent run so dynamic has been the unknown. And that unknown began with General Manager Dennis Lindsey putting together a team on the fly in the latter stages of free agency. It continued with a team with a whole bunch of new parts being thrown together and attempting to make it all mesh once training camp started in September.
“When we got together in September, I don’t think anyone anticipated the situation we are in right now,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “We were focused on improving and being present. We obviously cared about results, but we were focused on understanding the situation we were in. We had an emphasis on the long term, and we had a hunger to get better.”
• The Jazz have won 21 of their last 23 games, going back to January. In that span, they have risen from 10th to fifth in the Western Conference.
• Utah lost three starters from last season. Gordon Hayward and George Hill left in free agency. Rodney Hood was traded.
• The Jazz are looking to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season. They have 12 games remaining. Six are against teams currently in the playoff picture.
This Jazz season has taken twists and turns few thought imaginable. Preseason prognostications labeled the Jazz as a defensive juggernaut while simultaneously tagging them as one of the worst offensive teams in basketball.
They are currently second in the NBA in defensive rating, 16th in offensive rating (which is middle of the pack), and fifth in overall net rating.
This Jazz team was supposed to be led offensively by Rodney Hood, and he was out of the starting lineup by November and traded out of Utah by February. Dante Exum was supposed to play a big role, but he was hurt in the preseason and out until the middle of March.
If nobody around the league knew what to expect of the Jazz, the Jazz didn’t know what to expect of themselves. If nothing else, they knew they would play hard and give maximum effort nightly. Beyond that, it was kind of a crapshoot.
“The main thing is that we knew it would take time,” Ingles said. “We had the same group for so long that we knew we couldn’t just pick up where we left off. But we also knew if we put in the work, we would be fine. We knew there would be some growing pains. But I think we are there now.”
One thing the Jazz never saw themselves as: pushovers. And that would end up helping them when things got tough. So, even when they sputtered through injuries and uneven play, and even when their record sat at 19-28 in January, there was a singular thought in the locker room: We are a better team than this.
Maybe people should have just listened to Rudy Gobert. The Jazz center never conceded a thing when it came to how this reconstructed Utah team would fare in 2017-18. Not when Hayward left for Boston. Not when training camp convened in late September. And not when things looked so grim a couple of months ago.
Gobert tweeted “We will be fine” after the Jazz suffered what seemed to be a catastrophic 104-90 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 22 — the same Hawks who visit Vivint Smart Home Arena Tuesday night. He insists he is not at all surprised by the Jazz’s current success.
“I always thought we were going to be a good team,” Gobert said. “To be honest, I thought we would be better earlier. I knew that we had some new guys, but it took a while for us to jell.”
With 12 games remaining, the Western Conference playoff standings are still a jumble. But the Jazz are inching closer to making the postseason for a second straight year, with the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets faltering a bit of late.
The Jazz won’t acknowledge it, but making the playoffs would be a big accomplishment for them. They were expected to take a step back, but they are almost the same team recordwise as they were last season. They were expected to take a fall, but instead they have improved as the season’s progressed.
They have become the team nobody expected. And they may be the team nobody in the top four wants to face in the first round.
HAWKS AT JAZZ
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 40-30, Hawks 20-50
Last meeting • Hawks 104, Jazz 90 (Jan. 22)
About the Hawks • They have lost six consecutive games and seven of their last eight games. … Atlanta swingman Kent Bazemore is out for the season with an injury. … The lottery pick the Jazz traded in 2016 to acquire George Hill turned out to be Hawks forward Taurean Prince. … The Hawks force 15.6 turnovers per game, second in the NBA. … This will be the second game of a six-game road trip for Atlanta.
About the Jazz • Forward Joe Ingles set a franchise record with 179 3-pointers in a single season on Saturday night against the Sacramento Kings. … Donovan Mitchell is one of six rookies in NBA history to be the leading scorer on a 40-win team. … The Jazz have won nine consecutive games. … With a win, the Jazz would join the Houston Rockets as the only teams in the league with separate double-digit win streaks this season.… According to the Associated Press, the Jazz have won 16 consecutive games when Rudy Gobert records a double-double.