So many NBA teams were intentionally tanking their games Sunday night, it was fair to wonder through the middling opening minutes of the Jazz-Kings matchup if Utah momentarily got confused and tried to join in.
No worries, though, people: by the end of the first quarter, everything was sorted out, the Jazz were rolling, and soon enough, well on their way to achieving their ultimate goal — claiming the No. 1 playoff seed in the Western Conference and home-court advantage throughout the postseason.
Done and done.
Utah capped a tumultuous-for-everyone but still brilliant-for-them season with a 121-99 victory over the Kings.
They finished the campaign at 52-20 (a 59-victory pace in a typical 82-game season), stood alone atop the league table for the first time in franchise history, and now await the results of the coming play-in tournament (featuring the Lakers, Warriors, Grizzlies, and Spurs) to discover their first-round playoff opponent.
That’s down the road a bit, though.
On Sunday night, the Jazz allowed themselves a few brief moments to appreciate their accomplishment.
“It’s a great accomplishment. Coming from where I came from 7 years ago — not making the playoffs, building from scratch, building stone after stone, and being able to build a culture, build a team, build an identity — being in this position is amazing,” said Rudy Gobert. “… You’ve got to appreciate every moment. Going through what I’ve been through, what we’ve been through, this last year, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that you have to enjoy every moment.”
A season that began with many outsiders wondering if this team would combust owing to lingering tensions between stars Gobert and Donovan Mitchell instead came together in unprecedented fashion.
In fact, aside from a few nervous minutes early against the Kings, Sunday’s coronation was a largely anticlimactic affair.
Over the first five minutes, Utah shot 2 for 8, committed four turnovers, surrendered an 11-0 run, and trailed 11-5. Four minutes later, they were still struggling — 5 of 15 from the field, six turnovers, 25-13 deficit.
Against a Kings team missing every single rotation regular aside from Buddy Hield.
Panic time, right?
Not so much.
Utah closed the first period on a 15-0 run and never trailed again. Their subsequent 14-4 run to close the second quarter made it a 15-point advantage at halftime, and the contest was never close thereafter.
All that was left thereafter was running out the clock and some on-court celebration — cameras captured low-key handshakes, a few pats on the back, and some emphatic hugs from Snyder to various players as time expired — of their accomplishment.
“[There is] one thing that we as a team have stuck to, and that is being present, that is being able to move on to the next play and move on to the next quarter. And it’s allowed us to just be the team that we are at this moment,” Mike Conley said. “… Today, just telling the guys, ‘This doesn’t happen [very] often, where you’re the No. 1 seed, the No. 1 team in the whole NBA in the regular season, so enjoy the moment that we’re in right now today and tonight. And tomorrow, get to thinking about the playoffs.’”
Jordan Clarkson led the way with 33 points on an efficient 11 for 20 from the field. Bojan Bogdanovic added 18 points, six rebounds, and four assists. Gobert contributed 13 points, 16 rebounds, and two blocks. And Conley, in his second game back from injury, had 11 points, nine assists, and six rebounds in a mere 21 minutes of action.
The Jazz were proud of what they did.
And they are all intuitively aware that they’ve got bigger goals to try and accomplish coming up.
“You appreciate this group of men and the opportunity to coach them, and appreciate what they’ve accomplished in the regular season. I want all of them, all of us to enjoy this moment,” coach Quin Snyder said. “Appreciate the regular season, and then that transitions us to the mindset we need to have to try to play well in the playoffs.
“… We also have a keen understanding that, beginning next week, no one’s worried about what you’ve done today or the previous months. It’s about pushing forward,” Snyder added.
Still, the highlight of the postgame — and maybe the season, for that matter — came on the final question of the final interview.
Clarkson, the designated leader of the Jazz’s so-called Good Vibes Tribe, was asked what tune he’d pick to best encapsulate the team’s mood in that moment.
After giving it a few seconds’ thought and then digging into his memory banks, the sixth man naturally came up with a British synth-pop hit released in 1985 — some seven years before he was even born.
“Tears for Fears — ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” he said smiling, before queueing it up on his phone moments later.
That’s as good an answer as any.