Fill in the missing word in the following sentence:
Quin Snyder always wanted the Jazz to play ____ basketball.
Let’s see … good? … no, too bland … team? … no, too obvious … unselfish? … no, not comprehensive enough … smart? … no, Einstein never won a title … ferocious? … no, this isn’t an MMA fight … beautiful? … no, too much variation left in the eye of the beholder.
Strange enough, the word is …. happy.
That’s right … happy basketball.
What exactly is that?
Well. It’s not limited to what Joe Ingles described after a win the other night: “This is a really fun group to play with. We work hard and we have fun out there on the court. … We play for each other. It’s a really cool group.”
OK, they’re the freaking Fun Bunch.
But it’s bigger than just that.
It’s true that the Jazz are playing with a smile on their hearts, if not on their mugs. And yet, theirs is not the kind of happy you might automatically think of. The Jazz aren’t skipping through a park. They aren’t getting all giddy and goofy and giggly. They’re not LOLing.
They’re doing something much better. They’re winning.
They’re recognizing what they have to do to be successful, individually and together, and they’re easily willing to do it. They’re relying on each other on attack, passing the ball in a timely manner, jacking up shots when they’re open, getting into transition, and before all that, finding the sweet spot somewhere in the mix of staying between their own man and the basket and handing off and accepting additional defensive responsibilities to help others. And one more thing: They’re putting together the longest win streak in the NBA this season.
The way they’re accomplishing all of that is the best part of it, the part that’s edging Snyder and his players toward collective bliss. They know if they defend, they’ll reap the rewards at the other end.
It’s as simple and lyrical and pleasing as this: Get stops, hit shots.
“Even nights when we struggle offensively, we can still be in position to win the game,” said Rudy Gobert. “It’s really who we are. And now we understand it and embrace it more than ever. … We know when we play defense, we’re going to score.”
When Snyder was asked recently about his guys regularity in taking and making 3-pointers — the Jazz rank first in the NBA in total bombs launched and second in 3-point percentage — he gave what seemed at least to the uninitiated an odd answer.
“It’s our defense,” he said, simultaneously agreeing with Gobert and tapping into a crusty coaching bromide, that explosive scoring starts with dogged resistance.
Here’s the truth then with the Utah Jazz: The inner smiles start with snarls.
At first this season, it appeared that if the Jazz didn’t dial in early on their shots, they’d lose. They had to make near 50 percent of them, or they’d get rocked. It happened against Minnesota, against Phoenix, against Brooklyn and the Knicks, when they labored against switching defenses.
But then, something else happened. They learned from that Knicks road loss. As Gobert put it, “That game was really a win.” Victory that night came in the cloak of a blown 18-point lead, when the Jazz got sleepy and sloppy with their backs to their opponent’s basket.
Rarely has that happened since.
And yeah, the offense has awakened along with it.
As of this writing, the Jazz had the NBA’s fifth-rated offense and the third-rated defense. In recent games, they’ve ranked even higher. Nobody, other than the Lakers (seventh in offense, first on defense) and the Bucks (first in offense, eighth on defense), is within a shout of that.
Those ratings through the initial quarter of the season legitimize the Jazz as much as any others, and there are a whole lot of others, perhaps with the exception of their lofty win-loss record. In the famous words of Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.”
But Ingles said the Jazz don’t even pay much mind to that: “It’s great to be winning games and obviously we’re playing at a high level. But I don’t think we’re satisfied. We want to keep pushing.”
They’ve been efficient and proficient and consistent and, ultimately, glad about the results in the majority of their games thus far, all around.
A few days ago, they were atop more than one of the NBA power rankings issued by national outlets, which is a huge compliment to them, given the two talented Los Angeles teams with which they’re bumping fenders in the West.
That’s the thing. There are no big ol’ buts.
Just an open road ahead to be traveled and mastered.
It used to be that if Donovan Mitchell had an off night, chances were significant that the entire team would suffer. It was as though his misses spread through the team like a raging burn, causing Bojan Bogdanovic to miss, Mike Conley to miss, Ingles to miss, Jordan Clarkson to miss.
When the Jazz played New York in a second match this past week, their two best scorers — Mitchell and Bogdanovic — went a combined 5-for-25 from the floor, and the Jazz won going away.
When they subsequently played without Mitchell — concussion protocol — and Derrick Favors — bad back — in the first of two games against the Mavericks, their victorious margin was 14 points, reeling in their 10th-straight win.
If Sigmund Freud were to psychoanalyze the Jazz, the good doctor would pronounce them mentally and emotionally whole. Their scan would be clean. It’s not fatheaded, not fulfilled, not egocentric, but it is properly aimed, properly motivated, properly functioning.
The Jazz are enjoying the journey, and they know it is long and winding and undulating, not anybody’s idea of a laugh a minute. There will be off nights, frustrating outcomes, lousy performances, but, kept to a minimum, those are conquerable.
Everything about this regular season is part of their grand design in preparing for the playoffs. Positioning for those playoffs is useful, but when Snyder stresses improvement — win or lose, he continues to emphasize the need to get better — he’s not just spouting coach speak. He knows what’s necessary to go deep in the playoffs.
Whether the Jazz win 10 in a row or lose two straight, he’s locked in on increased efficiency in relying on the basics that he knows the Jazz can count on, come what may. That’s why he uses the two F-words so regularly — focus and force, and the need to play with each.
That’s how the Jazz can utilize games to their benefit night after night after night. They must. They understand that they must. And so, they take pleasure in the ascent.
Otherwise, the regular season would be a waste, and the result in the playoffs will be the same as its been for the past fistful of years, all of them empty and angry — a quick exit.
“This team is evolving as the season goes on,” Conley said after another Jazz triumph. “If we want to be really good, we need to win games like this.”
Said Ingles: “We love playing together. We enjoy playing together. … It’s a hungry group. But we’re not satisfied.”
No. That comes later, after the ____ basketball has been played, and the ____ reward is gained.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.