As inconsistent and flawed as this season has been for the Utah Jazz, as they head into their first-round playoff matchup with the Dallas Mavericks this weekend, they do at least have one significant advantage over recent iterations of the team.
“We haven’t been healthy. We’re healthy now,” coach Quin Snyder said, a few minutes after wrapping the regular season with a win in Portland. “We haven’t had that in a couple years.”
Two years ago, the Nuggets, in the Orlando bubble, the Jazz were without second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, who had undergone wrist surgery. Last season, against the Clippers, Utah was largely without Mike Conley, due to a recurring issue, and saw Donovan Mitchell’s condition steadily deteriorate as he battled a severely sprained ankle.
This time, as the Jazz ready themselves for Saturday’s Game 1 in Dallas, they find themselves in a much healthier position.
The only roster player definitively ruled out is third-string center Udoka Azubuike, who recently underwent surgery on his perpetually troubled right ankle. Beyond that, reserve point guard Trent Forrest is iffy to play — he’s due to be re-evaluated on or around Friday after suffering a left mid foot sprain — and Hassan Whiteside is dealing with a minor bone spur fracture in his right foot, but can play as pain allows.
Otherwise, the Jazz have no health issues of consequence, beyond the aches and pains generally associated with this portion of the annual campaign.
While the Mavericks fret over the status of superstar guard Luka Doncic’s calf strain, Utah’s players are hoping that finally being healthy altogether healthy will give them a needed boost.
“It’s huge. I mean, it’s huge. That’s why we put so much emphasis on taking care of ourselves,” said center Rudy Gobert. “Also, we know it’s not about one game or two games — it’s about who’s getting better throughout the playoffs, too. … For us that’s our mindset — just taking care of ourselves and be able to be physically and mentally ready to do it longer than the other team. Obviously, you can’t always control that, but you can control a big part of it.”
A prime example of such a mentality is Conley.
As hobbled as the team was without him a year ago, a determination was made this time around to do everything possible to preserve him for these playoffs.
Snyder, in consultation with the Jazz’s health-performance staff, limited the veteran point guard to about 28 minutes per game. Meanwhile, they remained largely consistent in avoiding having him play both ends of back-to-back sets.
The result? The point guard played a team-high 72 games this season, and said he is now in a position to have the leash taken off for the postseason.
“I feel strong — I feel strong going into this postseason,” Conley said. “I felt good last year other than the hammy. But my body is good. I’ve been maintaining my weight, been really working hard in the weight room, eating right, just really doing the things I need to do on a daily basis to be consistent to be at this point.
“I’m very proud of having played 70-plus games. Shout-out to our staff and everybody that’s really helped out with that,” he added. “Now I can finally … no more minutes restrictions, [just] go out there and be thinking about the game and not worrying about injury or anything like that.”
There was plenty enough of that as the season went along. Calf strains for Gobert and Bogdanovic. Concussions for Donovan Mitchell, Whiteside, and Forrest. A left knee bone bruise for Danuel House. A wrist injury for Forrest. A broken finger for Bogey. Heel surgery that delayed the debut of free-agent addition Rudy Gay. Knee soreness for Gay.
Oh, and let’s not forget the torn ACL that spelled Joe Ingles’ departure from the team.
And on and on and on.
And none of that even includes their disastrous month of January, when the omicron variant of the coronavirus ran through the roster — and coaching staff — like wildfire, leading to a spate of emergency signings and a 4-12 record.
Ironically, that assembly line of maladies which conspired to rob the team of availability and continuity en route to an underwhelming 49-win season is now being retroactively re-framed by some on the team as a silver-lining situation.
“When we had injuries, or guys go out, we had a lot of young guys able to step in, a lot of different lineups,” said Gobert. “… Last year, when we faced adversity in the playoffs, we weren’t really prepared for that. This year, I feel different. We’re more mature.”
We shall see.
Perhaps the most intriguing thought on the “ready to go” front came from Snyder, who noted that the Jazz’s well-being will not exclusively be measured from a physical standpoint.
“We probably had the toughest March of any team in the league as far as road schedule, home for a game, [then] out again. So it’s good for us to take a deep breath and recharge a little bit emotionally,” he said. “We’ve obviously had some games, be it Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix, where we’ve expended a lot of emotional energy. Particularly given the way those games were played, how competitive they were, what the results were.
“Focusing on ourselves to a large degree means regenerating — and I think that’s important, both mentally and physically. And sometimes forgotten is an emotional component,” Snyder added. “When we talk about guys being tired, oftentimes fatigue isn’t just your legs, it’s your brain and your heart — and all the different things that determine if you’re excited for the day. We’re excited for the playoffs.”
They have reason to be.
After a season that was constantly threatening to go off the rails, simply having all the key components together at the most opportune time can’t help but feel like storm clouds parting and a celestial light shining down upon them.
“For us to go into the playoff series knowing we have most of our guys available, especially the guys that have been in the rotation consistently,” said Conley, “that’s a win for us.”