SALT LAKE CITY — Once the Utah Jazz touched down in Salt Lake City in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, guys didn’t anticipate the reception they would receive.
A couple hundred or so passionate fans camped outside of TAC Air to see guys come off the chartered flight around 2 a.m.
“It was quite touching,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said.
Even after falling to the Houston Rockets in five games during the Western Conference Semifinals, this year’s squad put the franchise in the national spotlight.
Obviously, folks became familiar with high-flying rookie Donovan Mitchell but also lethal shot-blocker Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio the scorer, three-point marksman Joe Ingles, physical Jae Crowder and a host of other characters serving dynamic roles for the squad.
Utah morphed from a potential tanking candidate at 19-28 to a fifth-seeded playoff sleeper that won 29 of its last 35 games during the regular season. In the first round, the Jazz upset the OKC Thunder in six games before falling to the Rockets in Game 5 on Tuesday night, 112-102.
The Jazz returned for exit interviews and locker room cleanout on Wednesday morning at the practice facility.
“It’s been a fun year,” said Rubio, who missed the Rockets series with a left hamstring strain. “It started real well then with all that happened we went on a rough patch but at one point we realized we had to turn this thing around and I think the team showed the character that we have.”
That turnaround occurred after an embarrassing loss at Atlanta on Jan. 22. Two nights later, the Jazz would beat the Detroit Pistons on the road in overtime en route to collecting 11 consecutive victories and the rest is history as the team got healthy and started to click. Gobert also returned from missing 26 games from multiple knee injuries to help the Jazz finish with the league’s second-best defensive rating (101.6) behind the Boston Celtics.
“My focus was the same. I was focused from the day the season started,” said Gobert, a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. “When I went down the first time, I tried to come back and it was frustrating. I tried to come back pretty fast and went down again so that time I really wanted to come back ready and come back stronger and I did.”
Another key factor was the moves made by Lindsey before February’s trade deadline. The Jazz general manager was involved in a three-team trade that sent Rodney Hood to Cleveland and Joe Johnson to Sacramento while welcoming former Cavaliers Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose to Salt Lake City. Rose would eventually sign with Minnesota after being waived and Johnson joined the Rockets after reaching a buyout agreement with the Kings.
Even as a late addition, Crowder would fit in seamlessly as the son of former Jazzman Corey Crowder. He entered the starting lineup for the final two postseason games in place of Derrick Favors for matchup purposes despite still working to learn the Jazz’s system.
“When I got traded here, honestly, I was happy to be in a new environment, new situation,” Crowder said. “Really didn’t know what to expect. Just came in open-headed, clear-headed, willing to do whatever the team asked me to do to help win ball games and it was a fun process the whole time.
“I didn’t have any expectations of how the season would go or anything but I wanted to get in the playoffs and make it happen,” he added. And the team was playing good when I arrived here and we just kept it going.”
Utah’s finish was one of the best reversals in league history. The Jazz became one of five squads to fall nine games below and nine games above .500 in the same season, finishing with the highest win percentage (58.5) of that rare group, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
As promising as the future looks, Favors is expected to test the market as an unrestricted free agent this off-season. Ekpe Udoh, Jonas Jerebko and Thabo Sefolosha are also looking to secure their non-guaranteed contracts while Dante Exum will be a restricted free agent where he can sign an offer sheet with another team but the Jazz have the right to match it if they want to. It’ll be an interesting summer after a Cinderella season.
“I’ve been here through the tough times and I’ve been here through the good times so it’s kind of like a relationship where you’ve been through so much together and there’s no sense in breaking it up so it’ll definitely play a factor this summer with me,” Favors said. “I think this team has a bright future.
“Obviously, we can play with the best teams. We’ve got some really good players, the coaching staff is great, the organization is great, the city, the fanbase, everything so it’ll play a big factor in my decision this summer but we’ll see how it goes.”