‘We’re fooling ourselves’: Frustration sets in for Utah Jazz after third straight loss

A woeful defensive performance leads to the Jazz squandering a 22-point lead and falling to a struggling Pistons team, prompting a collective rebuke postgame for Donovan Mitchell.

Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey runs into Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Detroit • There were a lot of long, thoughtful pauses from Donovan Mitchell in his interview session following the Utah Jazz’s stunning 126-116 loss to the Pistons on Monday night.

And so, as he sat in an empty room at Little Caesars Arena, in front of a hastily-erected cloth backdrop adorned with team and sponsor logos, his annoyance was palpable, and his words — when they finally came — purposeful:

“We’re fooling ourselves if we say we’re gonna win a championship and we have a night like tonight.”

He’s not wrong.

Two nights after he dropped a purposeful expletive into a postgame rant to bemoan the team’s lack of focus and effort, they were undone once again by a lack of focus and effort.

The Jazz’s five-game road trip concluded with a third straight defeat, and that this one was manifested by a lifeless defensive performance against a previously hapless offensive unit was not lost on anyone in the aftermath.

“There’s a lot of things going on, but initially, it just lies on us staying in front of our man,” said Mike Conley.

Might be worth trying at some point.

Utah went out and amassed a 22-point lead, then promptly ceased doing all the things which led to that advantage. Post-halftime, the Jazz’s defense proved so thoroughly indifferent that a Pistons team which came in with the lowest-rated offense in the league hardly needed to expend much effort racking up 78 second-half points on 59.1% shooting. Detroit also happily sniped away on open looks from 3, burying 19 of 37 attempts in total.

One game after allowing Domantas Sabonis to do anything he wanted on his way to a career scoring night, they rolled out the welcome mat again, this time for Detroit rookie Cade Cunningham, who drilled 5 of 9 shots from 3-point range and totaled a career-high 29 points to go along with eight assists, and for Saddiq Bey, who came in shooting 37% on the season, but hit 10 of 14 overall and 5 of 7 vs. the Jazz in also racking up 29 points.

“I think we’re better defensively than what we showed tonight,” coach Quin Snyder claimed afterward.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to agree with such a sentiment.

Yes, the team was short-handed, namely missing three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who’s missed the past four games owing to COVID-19, and who’s clearly demonstrated the enormity of his worth simply by being unavailable. Then again, such precious little resistance offered by his teammates against the Pacers and Pistons would appear a pretty clear indictment against his teammates.

The question remains, is it more lack of ability or lack of effort? And which is more damning?

“We all have to be on the same page. And I thought we just weren’t as tight as a group,” Conley said. “And there’s no excuses for who’s in or who’s out of the lineup.”

“When you don’t have Rudy Gobert out there, our intensity has to turn up,” Mitchell added. “We did it against Denver. It’s there, but if we don’t do it consistently, this is going to happen.”

That first sentence of that last quote from the All-Star guard absolutely sent a contingent of the fanbase. Why, comes the natural follow-up, isn’t the intensity turned up by everyone else regardless of whether Gobert is there or not?

Then again, perhaps all of this is an indication that Mitchell was wrong about the Jazz being an inconsistent bunch. After all, Monday’s issues of too many turnovers (16) and too little transition defense (27 points yielded off turnovers) have been fairly omnipresent themes this season.

“Our goal is to be the best version of ourselves at the end of the year. And this games needs to help us, help focus us,” Snyder said. “Some of the things that we need to be able to do, we need to place more value on.”

He then specifically invoked taking care of the ball, and making an effort to run in transition.

Mitchell, meanwhile, after one more lengthy pause, addressed the other persistent problem.

“We got to guard, man. We got to just guard the ball,” he said. “They really ain’t much else to it.”