With one week left in the season, Utah Jazz are embracing the grind of finding ‘the next level’

With four games remaining in what’s been a “grueling and tiring” year, the team is committed to staying focused and entering the playoffs as close to peak as possible.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Georges Niang (31) knocks the ball out of the hands of Houston Rockets forward Anthony Lamb (33), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets, at Vivint Arena, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

We’re down to the final week of a most unusual NBA regular season.

It’s been one that has required unique protocols, and abandoning old norms to embrace new and unfamiliar circumstances, to say nothing of starting more than two months later than the typical tipoff date but only wrapping up a mere month behind schedule, all while lopping off just 10 games from the traditional slate.

Which is to say, it’s been a mental and physical grind getting to this point.

“This season — period — has been tough. You know, a lot of game, day [off], game, back-to-back games,” Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson noted after Saturday’s slog against the Rockets. “… I ain’t gonna lie to you — this season has been grueling and tiring.”

And yet, the Jazz realize, now is not the time to be easing up, to be throttling down, to be coasting toward the finish line.

There’s still work to do, still another gear to find, still more to accomplish.

Yes, they’re worn down — especially with All-Star guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley still sidelined by injury — but they can also see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And so, they’re going to push to get there.

“Obviously, you could tell with how we were playing [Saturday], we were fatigued. But we pushed through, guys are working really hard,” said forward Georges Niang. “It’s the end of the year. But at the end of the day, we have an end goal in mind, and that’s obviously to be number one — at the end of the season and at the end of the playoffs. And that’s our goal.”

That’s a lot of ends.

Which is apropos at this point.

Coach Quin Snyder noted that it’s all but inevitable that players will be feeling worn down right now, especially this year — “it’s the nature of this season.” He said the team is doing what it can to “manage” the fatigue, whether it be practice and shootaround schedules and workloads, or adjusting rotations and minutes within games.

“We’ll do as good a job as we can trying to get rest and take opportunities when we can,” Snyder added.

His players aren’t begging off, though.

Having come this far, recognizing what is within their grasp, all there really is to do is keep moving forward, beginning with what Niang called “a big game coming up against the Warriors” on Monday night in San Francisco.

“I don’t know how many [games] we’ve got left, only a few left here,” said Joe Ingles, “and we should obviously keep getting better, keep playing the way we want to play heading into the playoffs now.”

Conversely, Niang is well-aware of how many the Jazz have remaining … kinda sorta.

“I think it’s five games left. You really got to hone in on that, and you can’t afford to have too many of those lapses, especially with our schedule coming up, with Golden State, Portland, and then the last two with OKC and Sacramento,” he said. “… That’s four games, right? Yeah, sorry — I didn’t get a degree in math in college.”

In spite of that personal failing, he knows enough to realize that the plan the rest of the way is pretty straightforward: keep their focus on the game at hand, get in rest where they can, keep up with treatment regimens.

The end is within sight. Warriors on Monday, Blazers on Wednesday, Thunder on Friday, Kings next Sunday. And then, having secured a top-two seed in the West, they’ll have six or seven consecutive off-days between the end of the regular season and their first game of the postseason, owing to the 7-8-9-10 play-in tournament to come in between.

That time off will be most welcome. But so too will be being ready for what comes next.

“We came here to work. This is what we’re doing. And we’re trying to put out wins every time we step on the floor,” said Clarkson. “… I’m looking forward [to] the playoffs starting, but the break is going to be nice — you know, being able to get your body right, knowing that you’ve got to turn up the intensity, knowing that you gotta put more time in, knowing that we got to go to the next level. I feel like it’s a level that we’re trying to find and get that identity as a team. We’ve been at the top all year in the regular season, but I feel like it’s another level, another notch that we got to turn it up once the playoffs come to be that championship team now.”