If you hadn’t watched the Utah Jazz this season, you might look at their 19-7 record and think that they’d put together a lot of impressive wins, even before their recent four-game road trip.
But it was this road trip, which included stops in Cleveland, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Washington, where the Jazz faced their toughest challenges of the season so far and excelled at every stop.
“It was just great growth for the team,” Jordan Clarkson said. “It’s been a whole team effort. It’s been a good road trip for us.”
“It was just great growth for the team. It’s been a whole team effort. It’s been a good road trip for us.” — Jordan Clarkson
To be fair, the Jazz rode a three-game winning streak that saw Donovan Mitchell named Western Conference Player of the Week into the road trip, so they had momentum on their side. But the Jazz didn’t have a signature win on the 2021-22 season.
The biggest tests they had faced had been contests against the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies, and the Jazz had lost every single one of them.
Sure, the Jazz had wins over the Denver Nuggets and the Milwaukee Bucks, but those were against short-handed rosters early in the season with both opposing teams missing key rotational players.
Last week, as the Jazz looked at the upcoming road trip, they knew that there was an opportunity for them to make a statement.
“This road trip coming up is tough,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to stay locked in and do what we do...but we’ve got to continue to pick it up.”
First up on the trip was the Cavaliers, who currently sit at 5th in the Eastern Conference. Though the game came down to a final defensive possession for the Jazz, it was quite a possession and a great way to kick off the trip.
Then the Jazz headed to Minneapolis in sub-freezing temperatures to face the Timberwolves, a team that despite their record and not being a playoff team last season, swept the Jazz, 3-0, in the 2020-21 season. Mitchell came alive against the Wolves but what was coming next they knew would be even more difficult.
As Mitchell left the interview room following the win over Minnesota, he glanced down at a box score. He shook his head. When I asked what he was looking at he said he was checking his minutes — 33:19. Because the next day the Jazz had to be in Philadelphia to play the 76ers on the second game of a back-to-back.
Again, the Jazz handled business against the Sixers who just two days later would beat the No. 1 seed Golden State Warriors. The Jazz had just one day to take a breath before finishing out the road trip in Washington against a Wizards team that has caused fits for all their opponents this season.
The Jazz were tired, their legs weren’t fresh, they didn’t have a lot left in the gas tank and the Wizards were well rested and ready to fight. Be that as it may, the Jazz prevailed again earning their seventh straight win.
“If we’re tired, we’ve got to be able to keep playing great basketball,” Rudy Gobert said. “You’re not going to be fresh all the time. When it’s the playoffs and you’re playing in a Game 7, you’re not going to be fresh, but you’ve got to be able to play the right way and to find the energy.”
Find the energy they did. After a lackluster first half against the Wizards the Jazz came out in the third quarter with a renewed sense of focus. They didn’t want to lose the last game of the road trip just because they were tired. That wasn’t a good enough excuse.
“We were kind of sluggish to start, which is expected on the last game of a road trip when you’re playing a really tough team that’s playing hard,” Mitchell said. “I think the biggest thing for us was perseverance.”
As the Jazz move through the rest of the 2021-22 season, they can say that they have signature wins, an undefeated tough road trip where they grew and gave themselves examples of what it’s going to take to finish out the season as a team with title hopes on their minds.
“The way we played on both ends, the mindset that we had, it was really a contender mindset,” Gobert said of that last game in Washington. “We got better throughout the whole game, every quarter we got better and we played defense, that’s the key.”