Respect is a proper word of which the Jazz are deserving.
They’re finishing the regular season with the NBA’s best record.
They’ll likely win the West.
They’ve battled through an unusual season and schedule, one that demanded extraordinary things — such as increased fight and fitness and focus — in a compacted drumbeat of games that came at them like shots fired out of a cannon.
It was reminiscent of that old Warner Bros. cartoon where the main character — a hungry little pig — stole a pie off a window sill, swiped spaghetti off the plates of other pigs around the dinner table, and then had a nightmare about a mad scientist who force-fed him food of all sorts and rapid-fired pie after pie after pie straight into his grille.
(OK, so you probably don’t remember that demented cartoon, seeing that it was made in 1937.)
But the Jazz successfully devoured most of their pies.
And now, the dessert comes in earnest.
The playoffs always have been what this season was about. You heard that out of the mouths of the Jazz after they crumbled in the bubble, losing to the favored Nuggets in the first round after leading 3-1, understanding thereafter what they needed to do to advance further.
[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]
The Jazz’s stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have been through enough postseason experiences now for them no longer to be considered playoff neophytes. They’ve done more losing than winning in that intensified realm. Prior to last season’s elimination, prior to last season, each of them had talked about winning a championship right here in Utah.
And they’ve learned, at least to some degree, what it takes to do that.
A whole lot.
A lot of effort to do that. A lot of force. A lot of commitment. A lot of star play out of them, but also the conjuring of contribution from teammates who must step up to the challenge alongside.
When the Rockets were busy building walls around Mitchell in the 2019 playoffs, forcing other Jazz players to take advantage of so much attention paid to the guard, he was let down. Mitchell never came right out and said that, but he felt it. He had to have. But he wanted and needed to improve his reading and recognition of what defenses were doing to clamp down on him, too.
Last postseason, the Jazz’s own defense failed them.
They made their adjustments, straight into the teeth of a pandemic, and set anew their climb toward a better end. And here they are.
Some observers might believe the regular-season standings don’t mean much, that the Jazz finishing at the top of the Western Conference is ceremonial, at best, meaning little more than home-court advantage through the playoffs, an edge that can be erased in a single off game of any best-of-seven series.
That first part may be true in some circumstances, among specific teams that already have proved their ability to win titles, so that regular-season final standings aren’t all that final.
But for an outfit like the Jazz, even with injuries to Mitchell and Mike Conley, with concerns for preserving good health for the “second” season, taking the regular-season title is a righteous bit of preparation for what comes next. It was more than ceremonial to them, it was symbolic.
Symbolic of their strong move forward.
And an indicator of their intentions for something greater.
Last season, the Lakers won the West with a 52-19 record, and went on to win the NBA title. The previous year, the Raptors were second in the East, and won it all. The Warriors finished second and first and first in the three out of four seasons they won championships. And the one year they didn’t, the Cavs won it, and they were first in the East. The Spurs were first in the West in 2013-14, and hoisted Larry O’Brien’s trophy. In the previous season, the Heat won the East regular season, and the title.
And … well, you get the idea.
All of it signifies not only a comprehensive consensus kind of quality out of the eventual champion, but also it makes a statement that the playoffs are a punctuation of what has been started long before the last two months of play.
There is honor in that.
And a convincing argument that flies over and through the idea of a team simply getting hot at the end, rather a double-barreled fulfilling of its destiny as the league’s best team, hammering home the point.
The Jazz now have more pressure on them to back up what’s already been achieved. They have plenty of doubters — because preconceived notions about teams, especially smaller market ones, that are breaking through into new territory must provide absolute evidence of their worthiness.
That’s just the way it is.
There have been recent examples of failures in that regard, look no further than the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Even the memorable Jazz teams of the Stockton-Malone era frequently — always — slammed into playoff walls, showing resolve in trying and trying again, never reaching the cherished goal. When great players like John Stockton and Karl Malone repeatedly are seen walking off the court for the last time with disappointment etched all over their faces, it indicates how difficult the task is. Still, those teams went deeper through postseasons than anything of recent record with the current Jazz.
The new guys have their lofty intentions straight ahead at present.
They’ve said, as mentioned, quite appropriately, that their eyes are on a trophy, the trophy, and the regular season sharpened that gaze even more, with their eyes on the pies. (I know, I know, apologies).
It’s their hands that must be on them now.
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.