Utah Jazz try to strike delicate balance between embracing the pain and being forward-looking

A day removed from their series-ending Game 6 meltdown, the Jazz promise to be “brutally honest” in evaluating how to get better and finally take that elusive next step from good to great.

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson celebrates after hitting a three-point shot during the first half in Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers Friday, June 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Half a day or so after falling apart in Game 6 against the Clippers and being ousted from the playoffs, the Utah Jazz were trying to strike a balance between looking back and looking ahead.

There was generally a lot more of the former than the latter, though, among the seven players, one head coach, and two front office members who participated in Saturday afternoon exit interviews with local media via Zoom.

“Obviously we had higher expectations than losing in the second round,” said center Rudy Gobert. “… You try to ask yourself the right questions about what we can do so it stops happening.”

“To be honest, you wake up and you don’t know what happened,” added Georges Niang. “You’re — I don’t want to say in shock, but you’re constantly replaying moments in your head: ‘Should I have done this? Should I have done that?’”

Joe Ingles, asked if every season-ending defeat is equally bitter at this point, said 2021′s brutal implosion was in a class all by itself.

“This year felt the worst out of any of them, how we finished,” he said. “… We felt like we had a team where we could beat anyone on any night. … This one, for me, in my 7 years, hurt the most. It’s almost shocking that it’s over.”

Going out by 25 points in the early moments of the third quarter, only to be outscored 81-44 over the rest of a win-or-go-home game will have that effect.

Yeah, the Jazz are hurting right now.

They know how their four consecutive losses to Los Angeles — two of them without Kawhi Leonard — are perceived. Same goes for their Game 6 effort where they allowed 39 points by part-time contributor and Leonard fill-in Terance Mann.

Superseding the issue of optics, though, is their own collective disappointment at underachieving, at wasting what they believed was a legitimate chance to compete for the franchise’s first NBA championship.

“You feel the sting of that,” said coach Quin Snyder, who noted how proud he was of his players. “… This team, you felt what it was capable of doing … and we didn’t get it done for a variety of reasons.”

Now come the questions.

Where do they go from here? How do they take that elusive next step? Are wholesale changes necessary at this point, or will a few pointed tweaks suffice?

While executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey no doubt angered a substantial contingent of the team’s angry and antsy fanbase by noting that the organization has a prevailing philosophy of erring toward continuity, the team’s brass nevertheless promised to appraise everything — themselves included.

“Good, honest, sober evaluations — which we’ll keep internal,” said Lindsey. “… We’ll try to be brutally honest where we fell short, where we had opportunities, where we didn’t, and if we didn’t, why we didn’t. One of our strengths is we’re honest with ourselves.”

“The blueprint of trying to go from good to great is hard and complicated,” added general manager Justin Zanik, “but that’s what we strive for.”

As for what it might take to get there, well, there are no shortage of thoughts.

Gobert, now a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, has been vilified as the fall guy du jour by many rabid observers — an anachronistic giant incapable of defending small-ball switching lineups and, for that matter, incapable of exploiting them on the other end.

“Credited” as the primary defender for 30 of Mann’s 39 points in Friday’s Game 6, Gobert defended his performance in both Game 6 and the series as a whole.

“The problem is if I don’t come and help, we give up layups,” Gobert explained. “… The game plan was for us to let Terance Mann shoot rather than letting Reggie Jackson or [Paul George] get layups. We tried to adjust with full rotations. They played perfectly on almost every possession. It takes five guys to defend.”

Asked what the team was in need of, defensive wing Royce O’Neale said flatly, “One of our downfalls, at times, was our defense, [so] having another main guy to help with that.”

Lindsey, meanwhile, conceded that Gobert was too often put in an impossible position of having to decide between cutting off a free run to the rim or leaving a shooter open, but added that he didn’t want to “over-index and base every decision on the Clippers going small and with wing athleticism.

“… Is that a trend? Is it something we can mitigate? Is a change in personnel [needed]? Those are the questions we’ll be asking,” he added. “… There’s no question that when the Clippers went small and more skilled, our containment needed to be better.”

Meanwhile, there will be debate about the efficacy and cost of a team up against the luxury tax trying to retain All-Star point guard and first-time unrestricted free agent Mike Conley, whose five-game absence against L.A. proved a serious impediment.

Conley, for his part, spoke glowingly of his two seasons with the organization, but was pointedly noncommittal about a potential return.

“Free agency is something I have to sit down and consider with my family,” he said. “… I’ve had a great time here, but I can’t speak to what will happen in the future.”

That said, he opined that what the Jazz most need in order to improve is simply better health, though he did allow that “Teams now are going to guys who can play multiple positions … and teams can never be too deep with all the different styles you have to play in the playoffs.”

Ultimately, navigating that tricky balance between wallowing in the pain for a bit and, alternately, putting it behind them, was the theme of the day.

“Everybody’s disappointed. We were up big. Guys are still pissed,” said Derrick Favors. “Everyone realizes that when we’re in those situations, we can’t let it slip. … That loss hurt. That series hurt.”

Ingles added that “I don’t think we need to blow the whole roster up and start from scratch,” but conceded that, the way the season ended, some measure of change is inevitable.

“The ultimate answer is if you’re not the last team standing, you’ve got to figure out ways to get better,” he said. “… [There were] a few proud moments [this season] too, but it’s hard to think about those when you didn’t fulfill the goals you had.”