Dallas • The wait is over. The playoffs are here.
The Utah Jazz have acknowledged from the outset that their 2021-22 campaign would ultimately be judged by what the team accomplishes — or not — in the postseason.
With Game 1 against the Dallas Mavericks tipping off at 11 a.m. MT, it’s put-up or shut-up time.
Though their rollercoaster season featured plenty of drama and raised plenty of issues, the Jazz have nevertheless asserted over the course of their weeklong prep that they’re more ready for the playoffs than they’ve been in years.
“I think [the preparedness is] mental, but it’s also on the court,” said Donovan Mitchell. “Seeing different things, going through certain heartbreaks — that builds character.”
Now, they claim, all those lingering questions are about to be answered.
Relatively healthy? Check.
While previous seasons have seen the Utah Jazz go into playoff matchups missing such integral pieces as Ricky Rubio, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Mike Conley, the only players to appear on the team’s injury report Friday were backup point guard Trent Forrest and third-string center Udoka Azubuike.
“This is the first season we’ve been healthy going into the playoffs,” said coach Quin Snyder. “… I think our health is probably the biggest thing that we can point to right now which gives us an opportunity that hopefully we can take advantage of.”
Up to speed on their opponent? Yup.
After earning the league’s best record a year ago and having to wait the better part of a week to see who emerged from the play-in tournament as the No. 8 seed, this time the Jazz knew as soon as the final horn blew on their regular-season finale that they’d be matched up against the Mavs.
“It’s a great advantage from what we had last year,” said Mike Conley. “We knew right away, basically, after Portland, who we were playing, and we were already thinking about what we can do, how we can adjust, what adjustments will be made with Luka — a bunch of things were already clicking in everybody’s heads, and our coaches were already putting a gameplan together, so it’s a much cleaner transition to the first game of the playoffs than it was last year, when you didn’t know who you were going to play until basically [one or two days before].”
Equipped to handle small-ball? They claim they are.
“We got a lot better this year than we were last year,” said Rudy Gobert. “Last year, we didn’t really get put in those situations until the playoffs. This year, we got to experiment with a lot of different situations. A lot of teams did that to us during the regular season — went small — and I feel like we got a lot better at it as a team.”
Capable of both bringing it and keeping it? So they say.
While Utah has had season-long troubles maintaining large advantages — a trend punctuated by three of the team’s final seven games featuring blown leads of 25, 21, and 17 points — they’re retconning those embarrassing-at-the-time defeats now as valuable lessons that acclimated them early to adversity, and thus will have them ready for all that playoff pressure.
“We’re hopeful that the time we spent together the last two or three months, the adversity, has hardened a lot of different guys,” Conley added. “A lot of our team hadn’t really been in those situations much as a group; we were used to beating teams by a lot of points, and now we’re in close games and certain situations, and teams are playing a certain way. I think we’ve grown a lot from that. To have to see that so often during the year, I think there’s no better way to prepare for the playoffs than having gone through it like that.”
Armed with a little something extra? Oooooohhhh … that one’s intriguing!
“We’ve got a lot of weapons that we were saving for the playoffs,” forward Bojan Bogdanovic said cryptically at the end of Thursday’s post-practice media session.
After a week of getting peppered with queries about Luka Doncic’s calf strain, and squandered double-digit leads, and Gobert’s capacity to punish smaller defenders, and their defense’s ability to handle five-out systems, and the resolution of alleged internal beefs, and lingering PTSD from last year’s Clippers series, and the accumulated carryover pressure that comes along with multiple years of playoff flame-outs …
They’re ready to finally let their play do the talking.
“I mean, we haven’t accomplished anything, so we’ve got to prove it,” said Gobert. “We had a great regular season last year, and obviously, we wanted to get further than the second round, but it didn’t happen. We had some adversity, and the Clippers were the better team in the series. Now we have a different kind of opportunity.”
The team’s go-to buzzword of these past few days has been “focus.”
Everyone’s been focused.
They all need to stay focused.
Tune out the external noise, forget about recent history, ignore the big-picture consequences, don’t even acknowledge the existence of anything peripheral.
“We’ve got our guys focused on the right things and not what’s going on outside,” said Conley. “We’re able to lock ourselves in and go after something we all want.”
The wait is over.