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‘Bigger fish to fry’: Jazz battled hard to earn the No. 1 seed, but quest to rule the NBA is about to heat up

Utah did finish the regular season with the best record in the league, but now the real work begins

Jazz players talk during a foul review as the Jazz and Nuggets play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on May 7.
Jazz players talk during a foul review as the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Everybody wants to rule the world.”

In the final question of the final postgame interview after the final game of the regular season, Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson was asked what song represented the vibe of the team in the moments following their win over the Sacramento Kings — the win that cemented the Jazz as the winningest team of the 2020-21 NBA season and No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Clarkson thoughtfully pondered the question, pulled out his phone to scroll through his library of songs and then arrived at the answer that he felt perfectly encapsulated the moment.

“Tears for Fears, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,’” Clarkson said with a smile, before pressing play on his phone and closing out the interview by bopping his head to the synth-pop sounds of the ’80s.

It’s a smooth sounding new-wave song with an uptempo beat and the title totally works with where the Jazz are right now. Everybody wants to be on top, but the Jazz are on top. Wanting something and actually achieving it are completely different things. Life always looks better from the top.

The Jazz set out to be the No. 1 team in the league and they met that goal, finishing the season with a league-leading record of 52-20. They are proud of what they’ve done and what they’ve gone through to get where they are, and they should be.

Since before the season even began the Jazz players were saying that they wanted to be the best team in the league, a team that could contend for a title, and now they have their chance.

“Welcome to your life.

“There’s no turning back.”

Those are the opening lines in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and they’re just as apt for this situation as the title of the song. Actually, it turns out there are a few lines of the Tears for Fears classic that can be suitably applied to the Jazz, but we’ll start with that opening line.

The Jazz have no choice but to move forward. They are the No. 1 team, and they’ll be treated as such. They’ll get everyone’s best effort, they’ll have every type of defensive scheme thrown at them and they have a target on their back the size of the Wasatch Front. This is what they wanted.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder, along with Clarkson, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley all took time on Sunday night after beating the Kings to acknowledge how proud they were of where the Jazz are.

“You appreciate this group of men and appreciate the opportunity to coach them, and appreciate what they’ve accomplished in the regular season,” Snyder said. “I want all of them, all of us, to enjoy this moment.”

But, just as soon as Snyder and the players had acknowledged their achievements, they acknowledged there’s no turning back. They can only look forward.

“We have bigger fish to fry,” Clarkson said.

“One headline, why believe it?

“Everybody wants to rule the world.”

Once again, Tears for Fears hit the nail on the head.

While the Jazz only allowed themselves a small moment to savor becoming the No. 1 team in the NBA, that doesn’t mean that what they’ve done doesn’t deserve recognition.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Jazz were a lottery team more familiar with losing than anything else. But they powered through, trusted the development of their players, built a team around Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and became a playoff contender. Of course, it hasn’t been smooth sailing.

The last year has been anything but easy. From Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test that led to the NBA and every other sports league shutting down, to the tension between Gobert and Mitchell and reports of their relationship being unsalvageable and then blowing a 3-1 first-round playoff series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Orlando bubble.

Then, when preparations were underway for the 2020-21 season, there were more headlines doubting whether Gobert and Mitchell would sign extensions and stay with the Jazz. But, even after they agreed to long-term deals, the Jazz’s struggles weren’t over. They still had to contend with a season that would have the cloud of the pandemic hanging over it, upending the already grueling and truncated schedule and creating the need for protocols that made practice time nearly impossible.

Even as the Jazz climbed to the top of the NBA standings this season there are still those who doubt. You can find countless headlines about them being underdogs or not real contenders. And away from the court, things weren’t sunshine and rainbows. Longtime Jazz massage therapist Doug Birrell died in March, adding grief to a plate of adversity that was already piled high.

It is not easy to be the No. 1 team, especially in the Western Conference, and especially through one of the most difficult seasons in NBA history. But despite the headlines and despite the doubt, the Jazz had three All-Stars on their team and finished the season with the third-best defensive rating and the fourth-best offensive rating in the league — the only team to be top-five in both categories.

The Jazz lead the league in rebounds per game (48.3) and in total 3-pointers made (1,205). Gobert is likely going to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award, either Clarkson or Joe Ingles will be named Sixth Man of the Year, and Snyder will finish in the top three in Coach of the Year voting.

For the first time in franchise history the Jazz are the outright sole owners of the best record in the league and they made staying at the top look easy for a majority of the season. Everybody wants to rule the world. Everybody in the NBA wants that feeling, and not everybody gets it. This Jazz team though, it got it.

“From not making the playoffs and building from scratch and building stone after stone, and being able to build the culture, in order to build a team, we have an identity,” Gobert said. “Being in this position today is pretty amazing.”

“Nothing ever lasts forever.

“Everybody wants to rule the world.”

Of course, those feelings and accomplishments and moments are fleeting. As soon as the playoffs begin, the regular-season achievements don’t count. The 52 wins and everything that happened during the regular season won’t get anyone any closer to an NBA title. It’s all about postseason performance.

“Beginning next week, no one is worried about what you’ve done today or the previous months,” Snyder said. “It’s about pushing forward.”

This season, unlike any of the seasons before, has provided even less of an advantage for the No. 1 team in the league. The Jazz will have to wait until Friday night, when the play-in tournament wraps up, to know who their first-round opponent is, and no matter who the Jazz face, their opponent will be tough.

Everybody wants to rule the world, but in the NBA only one team gets to. The Jazz want to be the last team standing.

There’s no turning back, there’s no point in believing the doubting headlines and the regular season is over. The Jazz will start the playoffs with a 0-0 record just like everyone. But maybe, just maybe, at the end of this all, Clarkson can once again play the Tears for Fears song for a Jazz team that hoists a Larry O’Brien Trophy as champions and rulers of the NBA world.