First came the 11-game winning streak. Then a follow-up nine-game winning streak. The surge to the top of the NBA standings. The universal praise from opposing coaches. The growing-if-guarded optimism from fans. The recognition and acknowledgement from national media types. The begrudging top position in pundits’ respective power rankings.
Yeah, the Utah Jazz were unquestionably the hottest team in the NBA.
And now, as a result, they are perhaps the most targeted.
Monday night’s loss in New Orleans was their second defeat in three games, and their third in the past six. Even many of their wins of late have been increasingly hard-fought. The price of Utah’s early success, it would seem, is that the Jazz are no longer perceived as simply a feel-good story, a scrappy team collectively playing over their heads, but rather a legitimate threat deserving of opponents’ full attention every night now.
“Yeah, for sure. That’s to be expected when we’re doing what we’re doing, playing how we’re playing,” said Donovan Mitchell. “We play free, we play with joy, and teams want to kill that joy. And rightfully so. We’ve just got to be ready for it.”
They’ve had mixed results in that regard.
Their full-strength matchup against the Clippers on Feb. 19 saw them fall behind by double digits, rally back and almost pull the game out, and generally appear satisfied with the way they performed, even in defeat. Three days later, they were mostly listless and ineffectual against the Charlotte Hornets before a late run sparked a turnaround.
They overwhelmed the short-handed and stumbling Lakers. They got roughed up on both ends by the resurgent Heat. They overcame some heavy legs to eventually blow past the outclassed Magic. And then, on Monday, the Pelicans happily capitalized on Utah’s lack of defensive execution.
JAZZ AT 76ERS
When • Wednesday, 5 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Every team in that stretch brought a little extra something to the matchup — a trend the NBA-best 27-8 Jazz anticipate will continue.
“We know that now we’re in a position where teams and players see us as a challenge, and it brings the best out of them every single night,” said Rudy Gobert. “… So then they come out and they play great and they play hard, and it’s almost like a playoff game every night.”
There has certainly appeared to be a little extra oomph to opponents’ performances of late. Then again, when you’re facing the only team in the league to rank in the top five of both offensive and defensive rating, that is what’s necessary.
The Jazz certainly expect more of the same in Wednesday’s first-half-schedule finale, another showdown with the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers.
Back on Feb. 15, Utah needed a 40-point outburst from Jordan Clarkson to overcome a Sixers team playing without MVP candidate Joel Embiid. The All-Star big man is expected to be available for the rematch.
And so it is that the Jazz are suddenly feeling some urgency to get refocused on little details, to get their defense operating in peak form once again. Asked if the looming Sixers matchup was a motivator of sorts, forward Bojan Bogdanovic didn’t bother to deny it with some cliché “just another game” nonsense.
“It’s got to be. It’s got to be,” he said. “We cannot give up any easy buckets, our defense has been solid all year; no matter how we play offensively, we’ve got to get stops — that will give us the chance to win the game. … We’ve got to bounce back and play great defense against Philly and try to get a win before before the break.”
The plan, it turns out, is actually pretty simple, Mitchell said after the loss to the Pelicans: Just as teams have been dialing it up against them, so must the Jazz respond in kind.
“Whether we’re the hunter or the hunted, we’ve still got to be that aggressive team, and we just weren’t that [Monday night],” he said. “We weren’t the same team we were in Orlando as a whole. At the end of the game, we competed and we were doing what we do. But we kind of let up a little bit. And we’ll fix it. But this is a tough one. It’s a tough one to accept because it was stuff that we can control.”