There’s not a Ted Lasso-style “BELIEVE” sign hanging over the Utah Jazz’s locker room entrance, but given how ingrained the mentality apparently is with this team, there doesn’t really need to be.
This was supposed to be the stretch that finally eliminated them from play-in or playoff contention, that finally got them on the path to more combinations of numbered ping-pong balls and improved their draft lottery odds …
The bottom was, at long last, supposed to be dropping out.
On Saturday, with no Jordan Clarkson or Collin Sexton, they fended off the Boston Celtics — the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference. And on Monday night, with no Clarkson or Sexton or All-Star Lauri Markkanen, they kept at bay the Sacramento Kings — who came in as the No. 2 team in the Western Conference.
The Jazz know what’s been said and written about them. They know what outside expectations are of them.
And they keep winning.
“It’s not easy to go into a season where everybody’s telling you that you’re not very good,” rookie head coach Will Hardy said after the 128-120 victory vs. Sacramento. “There’s obviously rough patches at points in the season, you lose four in a row, you dip a certain number of games below .500, and everybody says, ‘Oh, there it is, it’s over,’ and that’s natural — that’s not anybody’s fault, that’s just the way that it works. And [the players] haven’t backed off one bit, they haven’t given in ever.”
With Monday’s win, the Jazz are, for the moment, back in play-in position, as the No. 10 seed in the West. And they’re one game out of the No. 6 seed and a guaranteed playoff position. Despite trading away four starters in the offseason, including two franchise tentpoles. Despite dealing four rotation players at the trade deadline last month and effectively taking none back.
“The thing I continue to be most proud of with this team is that every night it just seems like different people continue to step up and continue to use the opportunities that are given to them to try to contribute to winning,” Hardy explained.
To his point, with the team’s top three scorers all sidelined against the Kings, eight players totaled double-digit points — led by a new career-high of 27 for rookie wing Ochai Agbaji, who spent much of the early part of the season playing in the G League while trying to acclimate to facing NBA-level competition.
Journeyman big Kelly Olynyk nearly racked up a triple-double, with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. Veteran point guard Kris Dunn — who was playing solidly if not spectacularly for the Capital City Go-Go a month ago — ran the show for much of the game, and wound up with 18 points and 10 dimes.
Even oft-maligned center Udoka Azubuike, making just his 27th appearance of the season, was dominant and efficient for extended minutes, improbably accumulating a career-high 13 points to go along with eight boards, plus one assist, block, and steal apiece.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play,” Olynyk said. “It’s fun to see, it’s fun to watch — I mean, Dok came off the bench tonight — hadn’t played in 70 games this year or whatever it is, I don’t know — and was huge. He made great plays, was active on both ends of the floor, gave us a huge lift.”
Those who got the call Monday could have been overwhelmed, could have tried to take on too much.
Instead, everyone recognized that, while they’d perhaps have to step into unaccustomed roles for the evening, their best approach was to keep things simple.
“Everybody over here, they have that next-man-up mentality; we don’t depend on one person, we do it as a team,” said Azubuike, who scored seven of his points in the fourth quarter. “We knew that we didn’t have Lauri today, so we knew that we had to play together, to compete, to bring forth a little bit more energy. … Everybody stepped their game up.”
“Just sticking to the game plan, just really playing our game — knowing we’ve got to get a good shot every single time down or a good possession every single time down,” added Agbaji. “That’s really just it — and finding each other, playing with each other, playing off each other, and just having confidence in each other, too.”
Olynyk said he was most proud of the team’s “resilience,” noting that whether it’s rallying from a 19-point deficit against the Celtics or recovering after blowing a 25-point advantage vs. Sacramento, the players always seem to stick with it.
Hardy echoed the sentiment and theorized that the mentality goes over well with the people paying to be in the seats: “I just feel like our fans feed off the energy of this team, they like how scrappy and tough [the players are] and how they never go away.”
Then again, perhaps it becomes easier to keep fighting when you’ve come to the conclusion that the only ones who believe in you … are you.
That much, at least, was on the coach’s mind when asked what it would mean to him for this team to shockingly make the postseason.
“We talked at the beginning of the year a little bit about expectations and narratives and not letting anybody dictate who this team is going to be but them,” Hardy said. “The way that they fight every day, the way that they are committed to trying to win, the way that they’ve all sacrificed for the group — for that to happen, I’d be so happy for them.
“I love this team,” he added. “I hope you guys do, too.”