For many NBA teams, there is often a turning point during a season — a point when things can either turn for the better or worse. For the Utah Jazz, that juncture might have come with their recent back-to-back set against the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Jazz entered their Nov. 26 matchup against New Orleans with a 12-6 record, sitting at third in the Western Conference. From the outside, that might seem like a good place to be in the early stages of the season. But for the Jazz, something just felt off.
In the losses, the mistakes were glaring and recurring — a lack of ball movement, a failure to defend in transition, carelessness with the ball. But even in a large number of the Jazz’s wins, there were lapses and inefficiencies that the Jazz couldn’t overlook.
The Pelicans came into that Friday night game having won just four games, and by the end of the night the Pelicans looked like the smarter, hungrier and more effective team. New Orleans walked away with its fifth win of the year and the Jazz couldn’t gloss over the fact that something wasn’t right.
“We’re just not playing well,” Donovan Mitchell said. “I’m not playing well, we’re just not — it doesn’t look good. I mean, y’all see, it doesn’t look good and it doesn’t feel good.”
Why didn’t it feel good? Because the Jazz know what they’re capable of. They are coming off a season where they had the best record in the league, earned by playing to their strengths.
When the Jazz are making quick decisions and moving the ball, they are a very difficult team to beat because they have so many weapons. When they are locked in defensively, they are a tough out because they move and capitalize on the opposition’s mistakes.
There weren’t many offseason changes to the Jazz’s roster, so they don’t have any built-in excuses for losing focus when it comes to style of play. They know each other, they know what they should be doing.
“We’ve established an identity on this team, and we don’t look like that team,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s where the inconsistency lies. And I think we know how we need to play, it’s just a question of us executing.”
The Jazz were at their lowest point of the season that night. The body language was as bad as it’s been since they were bounced from the playoffs. But everything that each player said was tangled in a web of frustration and confusion because it’s not like they were unsure about what they were doing wrong or what needed to be done to fix things. It was clear as day.
“We’re letting games slip away that we should win,” Rudy Gobert said. “At the end of the season, we’re going to feel stupid, because when we look at the schedule and some of these games, we’re just going to regret that we didn’t keep playing the right way.”
The fact that the Jazz lost to a team with one of the worst records in the league didn’t even make the loss feel worse, because the Jazz know what each team is thinking when they see the Jazz on the schedule.
The Jazz are a circled game for teams. There are players on some of the basement-dwelling teams that are clinging to a roster spot, there are teams that are hoping that their record doesn’t reflect who they really are, and there are teams that want to make a statement by beating the likes of Mitchell and Gobert. The Jazz are going to get the absolute best effort from every team.
Mitchell said he recognizes that mentality because it’s the same thing he was thinking in his first couple of years. He played better when the challenge was greater. But he also recognized that the Jazz had started to lose their focus, that they were playing like they deserved wins, not like they had to earn them. They weren’t playing like a team that has been together for years and had learned lessons along the way. And his teammates and coach agreed with that sentiment.
“I don’t think we’re playing like a team that wants to play for a championship,” Gobert said. “We’re playing like a young team right now and we’re losing to young teams too. The young teams are playing better than us in the clutch. We’ve just got to look ourselves in the mirror and just realize what’s going on.”
The next day the Jazz came in with a renewed sense of focus and determination. The schedule was such that they were going to be facing that same Pelicans team, and they wanted to make sure it was clear who the better team was.
The Jazz had been talking about needing to see change for weeks. In the hours leading up to that second game against the Pelicans, they didn’t need to talk about what was going wrong. Instead, they got together on the court and vowed to play for each other.
“In the huddle we just said let’s go out there and have fun,” Mike Conley said. “Everyone is so tight and stressed and we weren’t having fun the way we were last season. So tonight was more of that atmosphere where guys were being selfless.”
The Jazz beat the Pelicans with ease and looked like a different team than the night before. The ball moved with crisp easiness, they were getting in front of the Pelicans in transition, they were communicating, making quick decisions, and more than anything, each individual player was feeding off the success of the others.
“Everyone wants to shine, but to have the maturity to know that when we shine as a team, everyone shines, that’s wisdom,” Gobert said. “Who remembers when the Bulls (of the 1990s) won, how many points everyone averaged? Nobody cares. All we remember is that they won and got a ring and won championships.
“In the huddle we just said let’s go out there and have fun. Everyone is so tight and stressed and we weren’t having fun the way we were last season. So tonight was more of that atmosphere where guys were being selfless.” — Mike Conley
“Thirty years from now that’s all we’re going to think about. Nobody is going to care about percentages or how many assists this guy had or how many blocks this guy had. We’re just going to care if we won.”
Two days later, the Jazz picked up their 14th win of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers, with the same kind of intensity and selflessness that spurred them to beat the Pelicans.
As they move through the rest of the 2021-22 season, they know there won’t be any perfect games and that every night they’re going to make mistakes. But they had gotten to a point before that first Pelicans game where they were allowing mistakes to change how they play. Once a game started to slip away every Jazz player was trying to individually right the ship, rather than steering things back on course as a team.
But Friday night against the Pelicans was a rock-bottom moment. To that point the Jazz didn’t feel like they’d put together a single game that they could really be proud of. The following night, they gave themselves an example to build on.
“It’s really going to help us down the road,” Gobert said. “It was necessary in a way. Sometimes it’s better to lose than win a game that you’re supposed to lose. Just keep getting better, keep embracing the opportunities and keep having fun.”
Fun basketball for the Jazz means focusing on the team’s needs rather than any one person’s, and in a 24-hour span the Jazz saw what that looks like from both ends of the spectrum. Now, they just have to remember how bad it felt when they were focused on the wrong things, and how good it feels when they let all of that go.