The images are indelible, from a playoff series vs. the Los Angeles Clippers that lasted seven games over 16 days and produced some of the Jazz’s best moments of this decade.
Joe Johnson’s buzzer-beater in Game 1 and his fourth-quarter surge in Game 4. Rodney Hood’s clutch shooting in Game 5. Gordon Hayward’s 26-point effort and George Hill’s dagger in the lane when the Clippers were rallying in the fourth quarter Game 7.
The common thread of the names from last April is obvious. Those guys are gone, via free agency and trade. Hayward, Hill, Johnson and Hood combined to average 66.7 points during the series, accounting for more than two-thirds of the Jazz’s scoring.
That snapshot of history is a tribute to the current team’s growth. The Jazz (48-34) became one of the NBA’s best stories over last three months of the regular season, although questions exist about how the new cast will respond in its first playoff opportunity.
That’s what makes it so much fun. This is the start of something, nine months after Hayward’s departure to Boston seemed like an ending. The 2018 playoffs have an entirely different look and feel for this franchise.
Last April, the issue was how well the Jazz perform in an effort to give Hayward enough confidence in the team’s future to persuade him to stay. How’d that work out? Not even the franchise’s first series victory in seven years proved sufficient in that quest. So the Jazz started over without him, and here they are, having won only three fewer games than they did last season. Nobody could have seen this coming.
The Jazz’s resurgence with 29 wins in 34 games, prior to Wednesday’s loss at Portland, carries them into this series against Oklahoma City. There’s uncertainty about how these guys will perform in the postseason, mixed with all kinds of hope for the future. Whatever happens, the Jazz’s showing will establish a baseline for these core players, notably Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
The lack of a track record makes it more interesting. Against the Clippers, Derrick Favors averaged 10 points per game, but Joe Ingles (6.6) was not much of a factor offensively. The Jazz basically won two road games without Gobert — Game 1, after he was injured in the first 10 seconds, and Game 7, as he played only 13 minutes due to foul trouble.
So they have much to prove this spring. The same is true of Mitchell as a rookie and Ricky Rubio in his first playoffs after six years in Minnesota. Dante Exum will have a consistent role, unlike last year. Royce O’Neale is new. Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko will try to apply their Boston experience in the West.
And the Jazz hope to keep playing as long as possible, celebrating a season that seemed unlikely to take them anywhere, as of various checkpoints — especially in July and January.
“We just stayed together as a team,” Favors said. “We lost a lot of good players. Guys took it upon themselves to get better in the offseason and we just stuck with the plan throughout the whole season.”
Expectations for the Jazz actually may be higher than last April, because of the way they’ve played lately. They’re respected in the West, if not feared. In that sense, not advancing past the first round or being swept again in the conference semifinals would be disappointing. Yet this team already has accomplished enough to create a healthy outlook for the franchise.
No matter where they end up this season, the Jazz will have a good starting point in 2018-19.