SALT LAKE CITY — Christmas season is near.
For average Americans, the month of December signifies the holiday spirit with love and affection.
Members of the Utah Jazz basketball team can’t afford that luxury to get all lubby dubby, though. This stretch is crucial.
Faced with the toughest schedule that any NBA team will see in any month this season, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the squad can’t lose focus.
“It is easy to segment months in a schedule, road trips and things,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “I don’t think we approach it any differently. You know, it’s ominous, but I don’t want to go into it like we are evacuating for a hurricane.”
Fifteen games are listed on Utah’s schedule during 2017’s final chapter, with most teams well over .500.
After knocking off the New Orleans Pelicans at home Friday, 114-108 behind Donovan Mitchell’s career night with 41 points, the Jazz will hit the road for eight of those matchups — including a six-game road trip.
Guys are pumped.
“It’s about to get real. Let’s get to it,” said Jazz forward Ekpe Udoh. “We’ve been playing really good basketball, but let’s take it on the roll. Let’s go. We’re going to find out who we are.”
The Jazz will compete against a who’s who list of stars along the way, including LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
Utah’s most brutal stretch will happen between Dec. 9-20 when the Jazz play road games in Milwaukee (Dec. 9), Chicago (Dec. 13), Boston (Dec. 15), Cleveland (Dec. 16), Houston (Dec. 18) and Oklahoma City (Dec. 20).
On Dec. 27, Utah travels to Oracle Arena to play the Golden State Warriors before returning home Dec. 30, on James’ 33rd birthday, to take on the Cavs again.
“Great. Challenges,” Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko said. “That’s what we’re here for, to face the best players in the world, so you’re going to play good teams every night.”
Although the Jazz have won five straight games, they’ll need to be at full strength mentally to successfully tackle this span, which includes a string of playoff contenders plus the defending Eastern and Western conference champs.
All-League Jazz center Rudy Gobert is still a week away from being re-evaluated with his right tibia contusion, Joe Johnson is at least two weeks away from returning to the team with his wrist injury, while both Rodney Hood and Raul Neto have missed the past two games with left ankle and hamstring soreness.
It’s no secret that the Jazz are banged up, but this month in particular could dictate how the course of the season plays out. The Jazz are currently in eighth place of the Western Conference standings but must stay around .500.
“When you have adversity, you can either fall or rise up, and I think that’s been our motto since the start of the year,” Mitchell said. “We’ve rose up and withstood all the adversity we’re having and this December schedule is going to be tough. A lot of people are going to overlook us against these teams, and we’re just going to go out there and try to prove them wrong.”
The lineup of Joe Ingles, Jerebko, Derrick Favors, Mitchell and Ricky Rubio is what’s working for the short-term, with Udoh, Thabo Sefolosha and Alec Burks contributing solid minutes off the bench.
“They’re very good at executing their offense,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “They’re very good at cuts, dribble handoffs, all of those things.
“Then they’re very good at dribble penetration and creating open shots so your individual defense has to be good on the ball and then you have to understand that when they drive in and kick you got to be able to close out and get into the air space of the shooters.”
Of course when Gobert returns, the team will likely shift back into its defensive mindset, but this group displays great ball movement, strong defensive principles and even logged a season-high 38 assists in Thursday’s 126-107 win at Los Angles.
Clippers guard Austin Rivers felt the wrath of the Jazz attack, even after dropping 25 points.
“They started trapping me in the third quarter,” Rivers explained. “Every time that I came off the pick they were trying to get the ball out of my hands."
Although the road doesn’t get much smoother after Friday’s win, the Jazz are as ready as they can be. At this point, there’s nothing to it but to do it.
“We’ve got to stay strong and buckle up and try to play well,” Snyder said. “Whether we win or lose, we come out of this month, December, we just come out of every opportunity to get better.”