When Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers recently responded to a question about which teams in the Western Conference were the best — you might have heard about that — he responded with …
Not the Utah Jazz.
His picks ran more along the lines of the predictable, the traditional — the Lakers and the Clippers, a team he coached last season, one he stressed was running much of the same stuff he embedded there over his tenure in Los Angeles.
In a way, then, he was complimenting himself and his lasting influence on the Clips, a team that has won nothing of significance to date, as well as falling in with a notion that hangs over the Jazz’s head like a bucket of mud, a line of thinking that persists because of comments like the ones Rivers was offering on that occasion.
The Jazz are good and all, playing good basketball, Rivers said exactly that, but they are more a bag of wind than they are any kind of authentic threat out West.
Rivers, of course, is not the first loud voice to speak such words. Shaq shoveled the same at Donovan Mitchell in a famous postgame interview on TNT, the interview that concluded quickly with Mitchell’s equally famous response.
Others have suggested the Jazz are a temporary darling, an outfit that is, as one commentator put it, “adorable.” A first-place team with an expiration date stamped on it, due to go bad when the playoffs arrive.
No matter what they say publicly, the Jazz, as is their way, take note of every bit of it. They are fully aware that they are being disrespected and, as is every team’s way in these modern times, are maneuvering themselves into a hoplite phalanx, protecting them from so much circling lack of respect.
Some of the best players and teams in recent sports have successfully utilized the outside disrespect, imagined or real, to harden their resolve, to elevate their competitive spirit.
If the Jazz are smart, they will go on using that kind of motivation, not that it will ultimately “save” them from the superior talent and focus of their toughest opposition, but over the humdrum haul of an NBA regular season and in the playoffs, too, it can prove convenient for sharpening their night-by-night effort. When the Jazz are beating teams by a league-leading average margin of victory, there are times when that can dull their edges a bit.
Not when others keep tossing shade at them.
In some ways that shade is understandable and potentially correct even, as the Jazz have no real track record upon which to stake their own claim of legitimacy. Last season’s collapse in the playoff bubble, after leading the Nuggets by a game count of 3-1 in the first round, helped them not at all.
Now they are doing the only thing they can — winning. Their best record in the NBA isn’t enough to convince everybody and probably not even the majority of basketball observers, but, if nothing else, they are proving something to themselves.
That they are the league’s best team.
That belief will be necessary when the competitive blasts of the postseason come. When the Jazz have to face the better teams in the West and defeat them in best-of-seven series again and again and again.
The burden of proof — and the pressure that comes with it — will grow with every regular-season victory. The spotlight is fantastic, but inside of it arrives the heat of that glaring light. That’s what makes champions so worthy, their ability to summon what’s required to be not just what they aspire to be, but what they must be.
Some NBA experts do believe the Jazz have what it takes to prove everyone else wrong.
But not even the believers can know that until … they know it.
The only way they can know it is if the Jazz lead them to that knowledge.
In the meantime, no matter what the Jazz do, the skeptics rule the day.
They rule it until they don’t.
That’s when the Jazz can celebrate, when they can laugh at the doubters, and not one moment before.
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 company thats owns the Utah Jazz.