It’s a weird word to assign as important to a professional basketball team like the Utah Jazz, especially at this point on the calendar, but it is one that stands out with them as sadly and badly and madly lacking.
When things go awry for them, as they have too often lately, that’s at the center of it. And its effects plague them at both ends of the floor. Guys double-clutch before delivering passes, if they pass at all. They find themselves out of position to defend as needed because somebody else might not do their job. They take too much upon themselves because who else are they going to depend on?
One of their stars likes to go one-on-five, the other can only score if others get him the ball in exactly the right spot. But this is just partially, slightly about physical limitations. It’s more about cogitation and cohesion, about confidence, about the powers of the mind.
Not comprehensively so. Sometimes, the Jazz are world-beaters. They nail it. They trust and they are trustworthy. And sometimes they are the ones getting nailed, not trusting, not worthy of that trust.
Questions, then …
If the Jazz are good enough, trusting enough, mentally strong enough to build double-digit leads on opponents, why wouldn’t they be good enough, trusting enough, mentally strong enough to put those opponents away at the end?
It’s not just about adjustments.
It’s about attitude.
It’s about a force of will.
We know where the Jazz have been this season and how they ended up last postseason, prompting more questions: What exactly is their state of mind? Where do they go from here, from scrubbing the bottom floor of depths as subterranean as any they’ve polished and plumbed in recent memory, after losing a load of games in recent weeks? What will the next few weeks bring for a team that allowed itself such lofty expectations a year ago, only to have those high hopes jam and bump and skid to a most disappointing result?
All the bad vibes returned to the Jazz earlier this week when they did what they did against the Clippers on Tuesday night.
It wasn’t that they lost, not even that they lost their fifth-straight game on a long road trip. That was nobody’s idea of a party, but storm clouds gathered for a more ominous reason.
Ordinarily, any regular-season defeat would be no big deal, considering the NBA season has little full, residual, lasting meaning when the second season rolls around. And in the Jazz’s case, in this particular season, that’s a positive thing. But that loss was different.
It was different because … it was the same.
A bad memory. A bad echo.
You saw it. You heard it.
The Jazz certainly did, bouncing off the canyon walls, again — We suck in the clutch! … in the clutch! … in the clutch! — just as they heard the same sounds ringing in their ears against the Clips in Game 6 in the playoff past.
Everyone’s already considered the similarities: up 25 in the third quarter, Donovan Michell running on a bum ankle, and the Jazz failing to keep their confidence and their momentum in place, not enough to … hang … on … for … victory.
And Mitchell, just like last time, was angry with the way it happened, calling it, in so many words … no, in his exact words … “the same s---.”
Rudy Gobert joined in with him, eloquently and accurately suggesting the Jazz didn’t play with enough determination and physicality. They didn’t, as he said it, get their hands dirty. Even worse, as he continued, they stopped sharing the ball, stopped doing the things that allowed them to build that massive lead. They stopped … trusting. And the Clips didn’t deserve all the credit for that demise. An examination of the final assist stats bore this all out. And anyone who said, as Dwyane Wade did on TNT, in the aftermath that the Clippers made adjustments and the Jazz did not was … well, a swing and a miss.
That’s not it.
It’s more this: The Jazz stopped playing as a team, they panicked, they were shook, they failed to do things they’ve been taught a thousand times, things they normally could do if they only would — such as dribble and pass the ball without turning it over, box out, rebound, keep their eyes up, connect on defense, make smart decisions — and they faded away, punctuated in the last moments when Mitchell called a timeout that the Jazz didn’t have.
Haven’t seen that happen since Chris Webber in college.
For them, it was excruciating, getting outscored by 18 points in the fourth quarter.
Gobert articulated all of this. He went down the problematic list, one by one, most of which is already stated here.
The Jazz’s happy news in the cold, blowing wind, and news that’s easy to scoff at when you hear it said in so many cases, is that their difficulties are not fully talent-related. That’s what coaches almost always say in front of the cameras after a loss. That if the players steel themselves with the proper on-court awareness and resolve, they can turn their troubles around.
Usually, it’s BS. What else is a coach supposed to say in defeat, after a string of defeats? Well, all y’all, we’re just not talented enough to win. We might as well pack it in.
No, instead, they lie. They tell their team and themselves and the world they can, in fact, do what’s necessary to win. Even if they can’t. That’s something, they say, they can control. Again, even if they can’t.
Here’s what looks like the truth from this corner: Unlike so many other teams with coaches that fib, the Jazz, so many blown leads later, are talented enough to win, as long as they’re healthy.
Healthy in body. Healthy in mind.
Right now, they’re neither.
If Bojan Bogdanovic heals up. If Mitchell’s ankle gets whole, barring some other strange happening, that first part will be taken care of.
It’s the second part that must be attended to. What’s banging around in their brains.
Is Dr. Freud in the house? He’s needed at every couch in the Jazz locker room.
There’s still time.
The Jazz yet have a chance to flip the script on what happened a season ago, when those great expectations — built by the best regular-season record in the league — slammed into that wall of disappointment in the second round.
At present, expectations around the Jazz are about as low as they go — mopping that basement floor. But if they get their bodies and minds right, they have a chance to finish — in the parlance of the Jazz — on a high note.
No, no. They really do.
This isn’t any bit of cheerleading here. I see the way the Jazz have lurched in recent months, starting the season strong and coming to this point in mediocre fashion. We’ve all seen the crashes, the burns, the fading away at key junctures of games, the forced and missed shots, the lack of ball movement, the iso-ball, the lapses in defense.
And the injuries.
Are the Jazz gifted enough to win playoff games without their full complement of frontline players? Negatory. But if they can somehow take the curse off, get well again, and gain back a measure of swagger, not the fake stuff, only the authentic, they might actually be capable of causing trouble for the playoff teams they’re likely to play.
Some observers flat say the Jazz are broken. They could be right.
But if you go down the roster and imagine each of those players being in top form, it seems something other than preposterous to think they might be more dangerous than most folks suspect.
Mitchell at his best. Gobert at his best. Conley at his best. Bogdanovic at his best. Clarkson at his best. Whiteside at his best. Gay at his best. Hernangomez at his best. House at his best. O’Neale at his best. Forrest at his best.
That team can — could — play far better than what it has shown.
The health part, as mentioned, is out of their control, I get that. But the force and the focus is still up to them, the attitude, the trust, the willingness to work together and defend and rebound and share the freaking ball, up to them.
Joe Ingles was an important part of what the Jazz achieved in the past. But he wasn’t important enough to destroy it all in his absence.
Yeah, no cheerleading here. But no cheap shots, either.
The Jazz are far from perfect, but they have a chance to surprise.
It’s understood, they very well could face-plant, as well.
Structurally, they can flourish, if they have the mental wherewithal to do it. The issue isn’t the talent. It’s the toughness, the togetherness.
It’s up to them — to stop scrubbing the subterranean floor and start scratching and scrounging with every bit of what they are and what they have to make it work.
No proclamation here that — no clue, really if — they’ll actually do it. The real indictment and invitation is that they can do it.
It’s theirs to decide.
That’s the echo banging off the canyon walls now.
If they’re healthy — that’s a modifier — it’s up to them … up to them … up to them.
And if they don’t, it’s on them …. on them … on them.
With more trust, they can be better than they’ve been. If they will be.