Sunday night saw the Utah Jazz play the first matchup of a season-long six-game road trip, at Madison Square Garden. With just a dozen regular season contests remaining overall, such an excursion is undoubtedly a bit unusual.
Enough so, anyway, that coach Quin Snyder was asked ahead of the game against the Knicks whether there was any potential benefit to having such a long road trip so late in the season.
“I don’t know. We’re going to some cities that have great restaurants,” Snyder quipped.
Then, as is his custom, he got serious.
“We anticipated this stretch for a while, obviously,” Snyder continued. “And we’re not healthy right now. But sometimes when we’ve gone on the road and we’ve found adversity, whether it be internal or your opponent, I think there’s opportunity there.”
Short-handed or not, moments of adversity were, to be honest, few and far between in the Jazz’s eventual 108-93 victory over the Knicks.
Sure, New York began with some hot shooting, and held a 31-26 lead after the first quarter. And, ummmmmm, a brief rally in the fourth quarter saw the Knicks get as close as 91-87 with 7:01 to go. Oh, and Julius Randle and Rudy Gobert (who totaled 14 points, nine rebounds, and four of Utah’s season-high 11 blocked shots) had to be separated following the exchanging of some, ahem, postgame pleasantries.
“[It was] nothing, really. I was telling him ‘good game,’ and he’s just a competitor, so he was maybe upset about the loss and overreacted a little bit,” a completely unperturbed Gobert explained afterward. “But I think everything is good.”
After Game 1 of 6, that much is true.
The Jazz are exceedingly aware, though, that this is just the beginning of the end.
And with the second half of a back-to-back coming Monday night in Brooklyn, and this trip literally spanning the country — starting in New York and concluding in Los Angeles — there’s potential for things to go sideways in a hurry.
“This is the craziest road trip that I’ve been on since I’ve been in the league,” said Jordan Clarkson, who scored 18 of his 23 points in the opening half.
The Jazz flew east on March 19 and won’t be back in Utah until the early-morning hours of March 30, following the conclusion of their next matchup vs. the Clippers.
With that amount of time away from home, Clarkson conceded he had to pack two large suitcases this time to accommodate all his stylish ’fits.
Couture notwithstanding, he noted the Jazz are not treating this like some extended getaway.
“Our level of focus is really high right now, honestly. It does feel like we’re gelling, and you can feel it from the top all the way down — everybody that’s on the roster, us just locking in,” Clarkson said. “… We’re looking at each one of these games as must-win games for us. That’s why the level of focus is super-high. We want to take home all the wins this road trip and go back home feeling good, get some good momentum going into the playoffs.”
Ah yes, the playoffs.
At 45-26 now, the Jazz are fourth in the Western Conference standings — but within two games each way of third-place Golden State and fifth-place Dallas, and 3.5 games in either direction of second-place Memphis and sixth/seventh-place Minnesota and Denver.
Though Utah has been a bit up and down during this season, Snyder has often said that the goal is simply for the team to be playing its best basketball at the most important time of the season.
With high-profile games against the Nets and Celtics and Mavericks (and slightly-less high-profile ones vs. the Hornets and Clippers) upcoming, the Jazz know this six-games-in-10-days stretch could well determine if they get on that path.
That much was made clear by no less than Donovan Mitchell, who — in the aftermath of dazzling his hometown fans with 36 points, eight rebounds, and six assists — insisted that such peripheral and tangential occurrences as a two-game homecoming had to be put on the back burner.
“Understanding that we have a job to do — that’s what our focus was all day, understanding that we can put ourselves in good position for the playoffs,” said Mitchell. “Keeping the main thing the main thing, regardless of what’s around.”
Clarkson, asked if he had anything fun planned during the remainder of this cross-country jaunt, firmly and unequivocally let it be known that this is nothing more than a business trip.
“Hell no. That’s the answer,” he said. “… Maybe a good restaurant, kick it with your teammates, but that’s it, man.”