The Utah Jazz began the 2022-23 season with low expectations on them — at least externally — only for the team to get off to a surprisingly hot start that, for a time, changed the narrative.
By the time Thursday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder tipped off, however, with each of Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Walker Kessler, Collin Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Rudy Gay sitting out, the writing was on the wall.
The Jazz’s last-gasp hope of qualifying for the Play-In Tournament ended with their 114-96 loss to OKC. The lottery is all that’s left.
And the team’s run of six straight seasons qualifying for the playoffs came to an end.
“I mean, obviously it’s a [expletive] feeling,” Kelly Olynyk said afterward, not at all sugarcoating his disappointment. “You’re a competitive person, you want to win every game, you want to play in the playoffs — especially [after] 10 years in this league, playing in the playoffs, in the Finals. That’s what it’s about.”
The organization’s front office did not concur this time around, choosing — as the season unfolded — to maximize draft position through a midseason trade that sent away two starters and two more rotation players, then selectively sitting key players with injuries over the final weeks.
In typical Jazz fashion, they kept things interesting for awhile — whittling away at a 16-point deficit until they were within a single possession.
In the end, though, they could not make enough shots (5 of 31 from deep), could not stop turning the ball over (19 miscues leading to 26 Thunder points), could not control the defensive glass (OKC’s 17 offensive rebounds led to 24 second-chance points), and could not get enough stops late (the Thunder dropped in 30 fourth-quarter points).
“It’s a hard moment to know that you’re out,” coach Will Hardy said postgame. “… It’s not a good feeling, because you know all the hard work that’s gone in, and you know how much they care, and you see it on their faces. They’re hurting too. These moments are hard.”
The team now stands at 36-44, and has two regular-season games left — hosting the Nuggets on Saturday afternoon, then visiting the Lakers on Sunday — before heading into what’s sure to be a second consecutive tumultuous offseason.
This past summer, the team unloaded four starters, including superstar tentpoles Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, as part of a massive rebuild following several seasons of early playoff exits and locker room drama.
This year, the vibes have been much better — even immaculate, as several players have said throughout the year — but there is still change coming, with cap space available, a haul of current and future draft assets in hand (three scheduled picks for the 2023 NBA Draft), and myriad roster decisions to be made.
That’s still a little bit into the future, though.
On Thursday night after Olynyk (16 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists) and Kris Dunn (22 points, seven rebounds, eight assists) both flirted with the franchise’s first regular-season triple-double since 2008, there was a mix of disappointment at not achieving what those in the locker room and on the coaching staff hoped to and pride at doing so much more than anyone expected.
For a team that was expected at the beginning of the season to have a legitimate shot at the No. 1 overall pick, simply playing hard and competing night in and night out made for a fun, entertaining, and overachieving season.
“This game, in some ways, is kind of a microcosm of of our season — it’ll separate the people that only look at numbers and the people that actually watch,” Hardy said. “On paper, this game does not look very good. And on paper, this season, you know, 36-44, it doesn’t look great. But anybody that’s actually paid attention and watched the team play, watched how they play, how they compete, the way that they’ve done it together, the way that they’ve dealt with changes, and lineup changes, and guys being in and out, and trades at the deadline, and a new coach — the way that they’ve handled all of that and represented themselves and this organization and this community is really special.”
That didn’t mean everyone was quite ready to see the silver lining or the bigger picture amidst the immediate pain of knowing the season is about to end.
“Obviously, it’s gonna be a tough night,” Olynyk said. “And tomorrow will be a little grim.”