A year ago they were the NBA’s No. 1 team. Now the Utah Jazz are leaning hard into an underdog role

Some on the team argues the chaotic regular season prepared them to battle adversity; others claim the season was utterly meaningless. With the playoffs ahead, we’re about to find out if either is right.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) as the Utah Jazz host the Los Angeles Clippers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 18, 2022.

Perspective is a funny thing.

Before any games were even played, the idea of the Utah Jazz’s season culminating in another second-round elimination would have been viewed as a massive underachievement. And now? Well, it would still be a disappointment, perhaps even a seismic-change-inducing one, but it could also frankly be perceived as a better result than anyone expected given the way the stretch run of the regular season went.

Not that the Jazz accept such restrictive shackles.

“The way things are positioned now, where we’ve got to win this or win that in order to have success, that external narrative is one we can’t control, and I don’t think our guys really buy into it,” Quin Snyder said.

Certainly not.

They’re far too busy constructing their own narrative involving perspective about this season’s results.

“It’s way different than last year, but sometimes I like being the challenger,” said Rudy Gobert. “I like when people count us out.”

There it is.

Everybody loves a good underdog story.

“You look at this year, we’ve had some struggles, we’ve had some adversity, and going into [the playoffs], people aren’t looking for us to do things,” agreed Donovan Mitchell.

Not everyone was fully on board with the “nobody believes in us” talking point, though.

“Maybe for those dudes. I think we’re the best team in the league. I honestly believe that,” said Jordan Clarkson. “I think we have an opportunity to do something special — I’ve been saying that since the beginning of the season. Underdog? Whatever gets any one of us up and ready and focused, whatever it is, whatever mindset it is, take it and bring it all to the court.”

Regardless of the paths they took, those three players nevertheless arrived at the same location: No matter Luka Doncic’s availability for Saturday’s Game 1 in Dallas, or the series at large, the Jazz are — perhaps improbably — full of confidence about their postseason potential.

OK, so it’s a given that no team is going to publicly downplay its own chances, but lesser-probability teams also are typically more generic and vague in their comments. This team is not that.

Perhaps it’s all just a braggadocious facade to deflect attention away from the ongoing storyline of the team choking away big leads, but Utah is nevertheless hard-selling the idea that, recent results be damned, this team is in a good place to make some noise.

“It’s weird, ‘cause if you asked me a month ago, I’d be like, ‘We’ve got a long way to get where we’re trying to get to.’ And [then] last week, we played more playoff-intensity basketball than we’ve had all year,” said Mike Conley. “They haven’t all resulted in wins, they’ve resulted in a few games where teams have come back and won against us, [but] you look at the Phoenix game in particular — we played a really, really good portion of that game, outside of the second half of that fourth quarter. We’re doing a lot of good things, and it’s getting overshadowed by some of the situations we’ve been in and the losses we’ve incurred.”

Gobert likewise spun those matchups where the team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as learning experiences, situations that have helped the players develop thicker skins and tougher mindsets, opportunities to become well-versed in fending off adversity.

“I’ve always tried to embrace the good moments, but even more [so] the bad ones. Even the bad ones … it never felt like it was the end of the world,” he said. “Even the games when we were up 17 and end up losing in the fourth, we were still up 17. There was always some positive to take away from those games. For us, it’s all about being able to channel that.”

The coach, not one to shy away from advocating for his team if a certain 19-minute pregame spiel is any indication, latched onto this thought as well.

“We’ve been through a lot this year, on a lot of levels. And I think it’s seasoned us in some ways. I think our team’s grown a lot,” said Snyder. “… I think our team’s better right now than we were a month ago.”

As for how and why? The roster is mostly healthy, and the personnel grouping has been bolstered by the acclimation of Juancho Hernangomez and the return to action of a certain versatile defender: “I guess if there’s a silver lining to COVID, it’s [signing] Danuel House,” said Snyder. Further, he saw some rare continuity and cohesion take place down the stretch run.

They may all ultimately be right, but until they prove it on the court, it’s just empty talk.

Then again, meaninglessness has become another collective theme of theirs.

Not in a nihilistic way, but rather from a blank-slate epistemological point of view. Literally nothing that happened in the regular season can possibly carry over into the playoffs. Nothing is innately known. Nothing is inherent.

All those blown double-digit leads? Gone.

The subtweets and pointed comments and thinly-veiled shots? Dust in the wind.

“It’s behind us, it’s a new season, you can’t take anything that happened with us,” said Mitchell. “The biggest thing is just to reset.”

Time for the cosmic forces of basketball to press that button on the controller to the big PlayStation 5 in the sky.

More seriously, of course they acknowledge that the wins and losses mattered, and how they occurred mattered, and the injuries and illnesses and lack of continuity mattered, and the habits and effort and schemes mattered.

But what matters more is that if they can fine-tune all of those things now to the tune of 16 more wins, everything that came before is irrelevant. Which brings us full-circle.

This is a team, after all, that began the year knowing that, after several years of playoff flame-outs, this group would ultimately be judged by what it accomplishes in the postseason.

And Snyder could not be leaning into that any harder.

“If we would have won three or four more games, the regular season might have felt differently. But we saw what that was worth last year. I can say it — it really doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “But as enthusiastic as everybody was about the regular season last year, that enthusiasm went away pretty quickly when we didn’t win in the playoffs.

“Phoenix clearly has demonstrated over the course of [this] season that they’re the best team. I’m not sure that we were the best team last year — we [just] had the best regular-season record,” Snyder added. “But I think where we are right now, you just don’t know what’s going to happen in the playoffs.”

But we’re about to find out.