Attitude in the playoffs is nowhere near as important as talent.
Any coaches who claim it is are straight lying.
But in tandem with talent, it has its nasty, proper purpose.
Donovan Mitchell is fully aware, and he’s making sure his teammates know it, too. He and they want you and you and me and everyone to doubt them, using that negative view as a means to focus and fuel them moving forward.
After the Jazz went up 3-1 against the Denver Nuggets, a team nobody thought the Jazz would handle, in their first-round playoff series, Mitchell immediately zeroed in on the next step and only the next step, taking nothing for granted.
“We’re on to Game 5,” he said, noting the Jazz had achieved little so far.
Little except shoving the Nuggets to the brink of elimination by playing some of the best offensive basketball they’ve ever played. But Mitchell dialed in on defensive deficiencies, pointing out the Jazz gave up 127 points. Not good. Needs to be better.
He, too, was joining in on the critique.
Mitchell said the Jazz have to “continue to fight,” adding thereafter: “Got to keep working.”
There were few signs of complacency in the Jazz after consecutive blowout victories over the Nuggets in Games 2 and 3, what with the effort they stoked from themselves in Game 4, absorbing, withstanding and answering a brilliant performance by Jamal Murray, who went for 50 points.
Was it classic Jazz defense?
No. But the fact they bounced back, possession by possession, responding to everything Murray and Nikola Jokic (29 points) spiraled at them, taking a lead through the final minutes and holding it, was accomplishment enough.
At least until Tuesday.
All told, the Jazz shot an astounding 57.5% from the floor, led by Mitchell’s 51 and buttressed by Mike Conley’s 26, Jordan Clarkson’s 24 and Rudy Gobert’s 17, all of whom made well in advance of half the shots they took.
There was no evidence of hesitancy or nervousness in their strokes, even as the Nuggets pressured them with their own accuracy, especially in the closing minutes. Instead, those players aggressively hunted for opportunities to shoot, or to set up a teammate for a better look.
And they found them. They found Mitchell. In some cases, Mitchell found Mitchell.
The Jazz also were clutch from the foul line, making 31 of 36 free throws. Mitchell canned 17 of 18 and Conley hit 6 of 6, many of them in the stretch run.
Clearly said, this team has lifted itself to a different level since the playoffs started. Conley. Clarkson. Joe Ingles. And the rest. There had been glimpses of this kind of play during the regular season, including extended win streaks at various junctures, but the confidence with which they are competing now is surprising.
Some of that team assuredness might be springing from a shredded-and-shrinking Denver defense, which struggles to guard the 3-point shot and has nobody to slow Gobert under the basket. The Jazz are picking and rolling and lobbing to their big man directly into the face of Jokic, who may be a gifted scorer, but he cannot contain Gobert, not when Jazz distributors are looking his way.
Since the early rise of Mitchell and Gobert in Mitchell’s rookie season, the two stars haven’t exactly shouted about winning a title, but they have let their intentions slip from their lips.
“We want to win a championship,” Mitchell repeated in the aftermath of Game 4.
They are 50 miles of bad road from that.
But that goal, whether it’s realizable or not, has kept them anchored to the here and now. Mitchell said that much, as well, after the Jazz’s third series win, scoffing at any kind of satisfaction taken from what’s happened up until now.
“It’s the first round,” he said. “… I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Jazz have done nothing — yet. But they are emerging as more than they seemed. The role the Nuggets have played in that sudden buoyancy is not unsubstantial, but that steals only a small portion away from the Jazz’s success. They themselves have taken what they could and given nothing back.
Repeating what has been heard from a thousand disrespected athletes before, Mitchell said he likes it when observers doubt him, when they talk crap.
“I love hearing negative things about me,” he said in a response to a question that had little to do with anyone throwing shade at him.
But that’s the apparent mindset of Mitchell and his mates.
They want to certify that you’re wrong, even if you haven’t wholly taken a position of disrespect. They’re eager to show the world what they can do. And that demonstration is not subject to getting self-satisfied with a 3-1 lead in the piddling first round.
The Jazz are sporting an attitude, all right. You might adore them, but you can take your adoration and stick it. They’ve got business to handle, and they want you and you and me and everyone to show them no faith, no belief, and even if you said you did, they wouldn’t believe you, because they don’t want to.
They’ve got something to prove.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.