We’ve said it before, a number of times, and we’ll say it again now.
The Jazz are having themselves some good old fun.
Not just good old fun … ridiculous fun, the kind of fun typically reserved for burgeoning teams with grand designs on big, big things.
Winning 18 out of their last 19 games has a way of stirring both good cheer and great intentions.
But it’s not just the results the Jazz are enjoying, it’s the new road they’re traveling, the way they’re traveling it, and all the fresh, happy collections that are coming en route. Accomplished as the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz teams were, this newer iteration is different. These guys make playing basketball look like an orchestra engaged in rousing symphony, not like tethered plow horses turning dirt out on the north 40.
It might be hard work, still, like swinging heavy hammers on a wall of granite, but, in their case now, the Jazz have created some kind of pop, some sort of liveliness to the endeavor.
You can see it in their body language, in the way they run and attack and share and create and shoot and rebound at both ends and the way they defend. Does that about cover it?
No, there’s more.
You can see it in the way they instruct each other between plays, the way they quickly pat each other on the back after a well-conceived, well-executed possession, and even after botched ones. You can see it in the way they stand, the way they walk, the way they conjure and absorb momentum, game after game.
There’s state-of-the-art excitement here.
Following their latest win, over Miami on Saturday night, Quin Snyder referred to the team’s total positive vibe — athletically and attitudinally, with full dashes of acumen mixed in, too — as a squad-wide stir of “heightened awareness.”
If shots are dropping, they roll with it. If it’s uncomely out there, or downright ugly, if teams crowd the perimeter and jam Jazz shooters, they go ahead and throw down for a rugged roll in the mud. But either way, they’re not losing focus, they keep grinding, keep going, keep grinning.
As Joe Ingles recently emphasized, it’s not that the Jazz are getting cocky or fatheaded. There’s no satisfaction taken, Donovan Mitchell said, in February. That comes four or five months from now.
But a turbo-boosted combination is building — the confidence that arrives alongside success and the determination that hangs all around this growing team, knowing that nothing lasting has been achieved.
JAZZ VS. 76ERS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
When • Monday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Still, here the Jazz are, sitting atop the Western Conference and standing over the entire NBA, with a 22-5 record, the best a Jazz team has ever compiled through 27 games.
Numerically speaking, that brings them nothing for what they’re really angling for — the postseason. If they were to somehow maintain that top spot through the regular season — a consideration they are not allowing themselves at present — it would hand them a couple of obvious rewards — home court advantage through the entire postseason and a likelihood of only having to play one team from Los Angeles in the playoffs, not two.
We’ll see about that later.
For the time being, the Jazz are the rarest of NBA creatures: a team on the rise, on a dramatic rise, elevating as they go.
That doesn’t happen with much frequency, not often enough that it doesn’t surprise when it does occur. Contending teams typically can be seen coming from miles away. Nobody saw the Jazz doing what they’re doing now, except for maybe themselves. There was one other person — former Jazz owner and now minority owner Gail Miller.
When asked about the Jazz’s chances for legitimate contention before last season, Miller said, “I’m not sure we’ll get there this year [meaning last], but next season [meaning this one], that’s where I see it.”
There was some talk before the 2019-20 season, with the additions the Jazz made of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, that they could be a dark horse. That didn’t happen after the team got off to a slow start and ultimately blew a 3-1 lead in the first round of the playoffs against favored Denver, and was sent packing with anger in their hearts.
But there were hints, despite that flat-bellied flop, that they were trending up — for the reasons everyone has already explored this season: the full adjustment of Conley and Bogdanovic, who was injured and missed the postseason, the continued upward trajectory of Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the retention of Jordan Clarkson, and the re-addition of Derrick Favors. The emergence of Royce O’Neale as a 3-point sniper and an elite defender. The bubbling up of Georges Niang off the bench hasn’t hurt. Neither has the collective stiffening of the Jazz’s defense.
Moreover, there also came adjustments made by Snyder, who should be — and is — the leader in the field for NBA coach of the year.
He glanced around the room and saw that he had if not the best shooting team in the league, one of them. So, he told his guys to knock off the fiddle-faddling around on attack, just for them to hunt for good looks — via pass or dribble — and fire away. Anybody think Clarkson and Mitchell, among others, haven’t been given a wide berth to just let it fly? It does not matter if there’s 20 seconds left on the shot clock or two, just launch the sucker when the solid, open look is there. It’s not quite that simple, but that much had to register happily with everyone.
And it did.
Snyder gave license to something else, as well, something wholly different. He told his players to crash the offensive glass. In the past, certain guys had been instructed that if they tossed up a shot, especially from deep, that they should get back to stop an opponent’s opportunity for easy transition.
Now, the Jazz are aggressively going after offensive boards. If they retrieve the ball, they keep offensive flow going, increasing the chances for another score. As a result, the Jazz are, in fact, getting more boards, getting more shots up, totaling more points. That’s one of the reasons the team is going on extended runs in so many games, taking advantage of mighty momentum.
What if the Jazz don’t get the offensive board? Doesn’t that give the opponent a huge edge on fast breaks, leading to easy baskets?
The clear answer is … no, because the Jazz are utilizing the misnamed tactic of euro-fouling, effectively killing speeding numerical advantages at the other end. That might be a dirty strategy, erasing one of the most exciting plays in all of basketball, but that’s not the Jazz’s current problem. It’s the NBA rules committee’s.
Regarding the leadership issue, that’s another rocket the Jazz are riding. Mitchell in particular knows his guys are counting on him, not necessarily relying on him, but looking to him for guidance in important, clutch minutes. That was obvious against Boston last week, when the Jazz guard absolutely took over the game after the margin had closed to four points.
But it wasn’t just him hitting huge shots. He also fed the ball to open teammates, contributing by way of giving and taking, allowing others to play significant roles. And, in other games, if his touch is off a bit, he’s finding other paths to victory.
There’s bound to be some losses tossed in among the tough games ahead, games against Philly and the Clippers twice and the Lakers, talented teams that will try to give the Jazz a hard shove. But, as Giannis Antetokounmpo said it the other night, after the Jazz beat the Bucks, it appears that this team is relishing playing the game together … you know, as a team, whoever gets the ball, the glory, whenever, whatever. None of that matters. What does is attention to detail and sharing in the wins.
It’s not much of an analytical breakdown — that the Jazz are playing with joy.
Plenty of stats and numbers there are — for those who insist on having them — plainly evidencing so much Jazz effectiveness. But pay no mind to them. Dial in, instead, on the mugs of the players and the combination of expressions that are so often on them.
Smiles mixed with snarls, grins with growls.
There’s no better way for an emerging contender to win, no better way for the winning to be not just revealed, but affirmed.
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.