Boston • Yeah, sure, of course it’s a good thing that the Utah Jazz have followed up their disastrous four-game losing streak (all at home) with a three-game winning streak (the last two on the road).
But how much of a good thing is it, really, considering those wins came against Eastern Conference bottom-feeders Washington, Cleveland, and New York? Are there actually meaningful positive developments that have occurred? Legitimate signs of progress to be encouraged about? Or is this nothing more than knocking off some bad teams?
The Jazz not only understand the skepticism, they actually count themselves among the skeptics. Until they play well against a quality opponent — like, say, vs. the Celtics in Boston on Friday — the doubts will linger.
“I said in Cleveland I don’t want to get too high. No disrespect to teams we play, but these are games where we should come out on top,” Donovan Mitchell noted after Wednesday’s victory over the Knicks. “We have a test coming up against Boston, and we’ve got to keep the same energy, we’ve got to continue to play the same way even against tougher teams.”
Rudy Gobert, meanwhile, was not about to devalue those victories against subpar opponents, either.
“We also lost some games against some of these teams,” he reminded the media in New York. “That’s the schedule — you don’t play contending teams every night, and contending teams lose here too, so every night is a different opportunity and these guys are talented. … Every team is trying to beat us every night, so every night is a different challenge, and it’s on us bring it every night and keep getting better.”
The Jazz are right to be cautious, to guard against over-enthusiasm. For while there have been some positive occurrences in this stretch, there remain some issues to work on, as well.
On the plus side of the ledger: Bojan Bogdanovic has rediscovered his shooting stroke, and is increasingly engaged in other aspects of Utah’s attack; Mike Conley appears to be playing his best basketball of the season, and is proving to be a difference-maker on the court; Gobert is finding ways to get re-activated on offense, and the Jazz as a whole have been more efficient inside; while low-energy third quarters have been a season-long problem, the Jazz dominated that period against the Wizards, and shook off a weak couple minutes vs. the Knicks to take control; the ball movement has been exceptional; and Utah’s much-maligned transition defense did not yield a single fast-break point in New York.
“I love it. I think that’s the way that we should play every night, that’s Jazz basketball, that’s our brand,” said Gobert. “We’ve been able to do it against teams that maybe are not contending teams, and now we have to do it every night, and we have to keep doing it even when things get tough. I think if we keep trusting one another, and keep communicating on the defensive end, and moving the ball offensively, we’re a very good team.”
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses.
Cleveland was able to keep Monday’s game closer than it maybe should have been on account of getting out on the break and working the offensive boards; the Knicks, similarly, ultimately made Wednesday’s contest relatively close at the end by controlling the glass; opponents continue to make shots at a high rate against the Jazz’s suspect defense; Joe Ingles has posted good assist numbers in his new-again role off the bench, but is not providing much in the ay of shooting or scoring; that aforementioned newfound third-period prowess includes surrendering 31 point to the Cavs, and an opening 9-2 salvo from New York.
As a result, coach Quin Snyder keeps reminding everyone that the Jazz still have much yet to work on.
“I think I was pretty clear when we lost a couple coming out of break that it wasn’t necessarily one thing, that we needed to be more solid and more sound,” he said. “We do that, we’re a much better team. I think for us, that ability to focus, to play mistake-free, to be urgent, just to make it hard — we give ourselves a chance on misses to attack. We’re a team that needs each other.”
They certainly need each other to be better against the Celtics than they were last time around, in a 114-103 loss on Feb. 26 — the fourth straight defeat of that post-All-Star break swoon.
In that game, the Celtics shot 53.6% from the field and 42.3% from deep — including three straight wide-open treys by Marcus Smart in the fourth quarter that pretty much put the game out of reach. Boston also scored 56 points in the paint, and got 21 second-chance points.
Even though the Celtics had dropped two in a row before knocking off the Cavs on Wednesday, the Jazz recognize that they must improve significantly this time if they’re to change the result.
“We had slip-ups on maybe three or four straight possessions and those led to 3s and other buckets,” Mitchell said. “So if we can understand that we can’t make those mistakes — you can make those mistakes against certain teams, you can’t make them against teams like Boston — we’re going to come in and we’re ready to go.”
He, as much as anyone, is eager and anxious to see if they can pull off a solid performance against a good opponent.
“We came in [to New York] and did what we were supposed to do, but now we’ve got to shift and have the same mindset against Boston and be more aggressive,” Mitchell said. “… We’ve got to be ready to keep the same energy and same focus.”
JAZZ AT CELTICS
At TD Garden, Boston
Tipoff • Friday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 39-22; Celtics 42-19
Last meeting • Celtics, 114-103 (Feb. 26)
About the Jazz • Utah has won three straight games, having knocked off Washington, Cleveland, and New York. … After Wednesday’s 10-for-36 effort from deep, Utah is now only tied for the NBA lead in season-long 3-point percentage with Miami (38.5%). … This game is the third of the team’s four-game road trip, and the opener of a back-to-back set that will also include a matchup vs. the Pistons in Detroit on Saturday.
About the Celtics • Boston ranks fourth in the league in defensive rating, allowing just 106.2 points per 100 possessions. … After back-to-back losses to the Rockets and Nets, the Celtics knocked off the Cavs on Wednesday. … Jayson Tatum was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for February, after averaging 30.7 points and 7.9 rebounds, and shooting 48.1% from 3.