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Gordon Monson: Watching and waiting for the Utah Jazz’s Frankenstein to come alive

A stretch of nine losses over 11 games has fans looking for signs of life

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) looks to the coaching staff during a timeout as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets at Vivint Arena, Jan. 18, 2022.

Expectations, like a slop of contested, bricked 3-pointers, are raining down upon the Utah Jazz. Hope and anticipation have not gone dormant, have not settled in abeyance, just in impatience.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

How else can this be illustrated?

Like this: Life has not yet been wholly breathed into the monster, and everyone is fully aware. Frankenstein lies on the table still, maybe with an occasional grunt or moan, as the doctor concocts steaming solutions in bubbling beakers and turns knobs, this way, that way, every way, awaiting another electrical charge from above while determining whether additional — or different — functional body parts are needed. More on that later.

When the Jazz struggle, as they have in recent weeks — losing 9 of 11 games over a dreary stretch (granted there were and are at times major absences from the lineup and, on the bright side, chances to grow) — a fanbase that has remained remarkably engaged for years expresses its concerns. It soars with the wins, plumbs the depths with the losses.

It’s what fans do, what they’re sanctioned to do.

Watch.

Wonder.

Celebrate.

Complain.

Care.

Worry.

Breathe, dammit, breathe. Will the monster stir?

The hot burn among them in down times rages quickly at both ends of the spectrum, from the old-school area — now safely spaced, but without mandated masks (unless they have a seat within 15 feet of the court) — around the water cooler all the way to the dark reaches — cloaked safely in anonymity — of social media.

Will this team ever be what the fans want it to be? A contender? A champion?

The Jazz have a decent record, lagging behind Golden State and Phoenix — the teams they faced and lost to on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday — but it’s OK, nonetheless. At this writing, their offensive rating is tops in the NBA and their net rating is near the top. They rank third in field-goal percentage, second in 3-pointers taken and first in 3-pointers made, first in 2-point percentage, first in free throws made, second in free throws attempted, and first in points per game.

Did Franky just budge?

There is, though, an ignition point, beyond the moment, for the doubt, for the fire and the flames.

The past.

Those smoldering embers of shortcomings, now and particularly in the postseason, always hover — a mixed metaphor, admittedly — over some and consistently haunt others. Regular observers of the Jazz have not forgotten the team’s weaknesses — foremost among them defense on the perimeter and a tendency to take bad shots and go hero-hog-ball when under duress. When they miss shots — duh — they’re toast.

Studying the numbers — a methodology that seduces and impresses so many these days — reveals that the Jazz rank 27th in assists per game, a curious stat considering the team’s emphasis on ball movement and unselfish play, in spite of an attendant focus on getting early and individual shots. They are 18th in turnovers. Not great.

What happened against the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals last time around re-emerges every time the Jazz play the way they did recently against the Pistons, Lakers and the Rockets, losing games that fans expected them to win. LeBron James playing center? Losing to the Warriors, who were missing two All-Stars, as the Jazz played without Donovan Mitchell? The more recent, more understandable losses? The Jazz bricking open looks down the stretch? Yeah, it ultimately killed them.

Frankenstein remains dead.

Mostly dead.

And then, sure enough, those images of bygone failures rush back.

The hard truth is this: Fans do not trust the Jazz.

They do not trust the process.

They want to trust them. They see what they’re capable of on the good nights, which outnumber the bad, when the ball is swinging, the ball is dropping from distance, when Mitchell is leading the way, healthy and playing like a full-blown star, and Rudy Gobert is leading the way, healthy and dominating, flushing and blocking shots, when everyone is healthy and working together, when the turnovers are kept to a minimum, when defensive effort and effectiveness, while never perfect, are evident, when the team plays as … you know, a team.

Then come those other nights, engine parts blowing all over the road, and the memories swell.

It’s as though the good nights make the bad ones worse because hope is expanded like air pumped into a balloon and then … out comes the pin and the pop.

Jazz fans have learned — on the positive side and the negative — that the regular season is only a glimpse at what might happen when the games really count. Certainly, the Jazz know the same.

Last season’s best record helped them not one bit against the Clippers. In fact, the team with the best winning percentage during the regular season only wins the title about one-third of the time, and more often than expected, that team doesn’t even make the Finals. The same encouragement can be found even in the season’s nadirs — if they are properly utilized for an ongoing education and an opportunity for adjustment and improvement and recovery, mentally and physically.

That’s anything but insignificant.

Then you wonder, is the Jazz’s shortcoming primarily physical or mental?

Is it A.B. Normal?

Which part is misfiring?

Mentality can be altered, lessons can be learned, the physical, on the other hand, cannot, not immediately, not in this sense — Jazz players are talented enough or not talented enough. That either is or it isn’t.

Mitchell is a star, but how bright a one is yet to be determined.

Gobert is a difference-maker, but is he a liability against certain lineups?

Those questions are huge, not just to the fans, but to the team itself.

And they remain unanswered.

In some ways, the Jazz’s offense, while ranked so highly, is reminiscent of a Ferrari on a race track. It looks good, it’s fast, it handles, but at times it’s … what’s the word, finicky? Temperamental? Vulnerable? Unreliable?

Sometimes it gets beat via pure speed by a Porsche, sometimes it gets run over by a Peterbilt. It may lead the league in 2-point percentage, but it prefers to jack up 3s.

When it works, it screams. When it doesn’t, it croaks.

Switchy defenses seem to knock it off stride, as do some iterations of small ball.

Mitchell rescues the team down the stretch, and then, when his team needs him, he sometimes tries too hard to go iso, missing what would be effective kick-outs. He’s not the only one to do it, but he’s the best Jazz player to do it. And when he — they — get in that mode, they miss other opportunities, such as hitting Gobert on pin-downs, and such.

Mitchell’s decision-making is the burden of an elite player — when to pour it on himself, when to help his teammates pour it on.

Adding to all of that, Joe Ingles has played herky-jerky, like a guy who knows he might get traded. Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t.

But don’t be surprised if the Jazz actually make a move before the deadline — for the very reason that Jazz fans sometimes get surly. High expectations. They are expected — they expect themselves — to really achieve something this time around, something more.

But deep down, the aforementioned doubt lingers. The past hovers and haunts.

The players may never say it, but they feel it, too.

They know that good is no longer good enough.

But they, along with the coaches, also know the regular season is what it is … an experiment, a grand science project littered with formulas scribbled on chalkboards, with Bunsen burners and those smoking, bubbling beakers filled with who knows what. Both setbacks and a polished product at present may make those with mad expressions in lab coats look bad or good, but it’s all theoretical and temporary in the here-and-now.

One sure thing: Health must be reestablished.

Watch and wonder and worry all you want, celebrating and complaining along the way, but remember — what comes later, the there-and-then, is what counts, when the lightning kicks up and the voltage hits home.

Frankenstein, bolts and a brain, bits and body parts, might still find breath. It may yet come alive.

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