There’s a reason the Utah Jazz didn’t make it past the first round last year. There’s a reason they lost a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets and they were sent packing, heartbroken. They weren’t ready.
But this time around, the Jazz are heading into the postseason with a renewed sense of determination and confidence. They’re healthy and happy and familiar with one another.
“Mentally and physically, I think we’re ready this year,” Joe Ingles said.
Think back to last year’s NBA playoffs in the Orlando bubble.
The Jazz were going to be without Bojan Bogdanovic through the entirety of the postseason and Mike Conley unexpectedly had to leave Orlando to fly back home to Ohio for the birth of his third child.
“We’re playing how we envisioned playing last year a little bit, we didn’t really get to do that with the injuries and guys in and out and all that. We’ve really taken off with the style and the 3s and playing defense and kind of doing what we always kind of thought this group could do.” — Joe Ingles
Rookie Juwan Morgan started at power forward for the Jazz in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs. Tony Bradley and Emmanuel Mudiay played a combined 20 minutes in that same game. That wasn’t the recipe for success, and the Jazz lost that first game.
To the Jazz’s credit they still had to roll with Morgan in the starting lineup in Game 2, but they held Denver guard Jamal Murray to just 14 points and evened the series. Then they won Games 3 and 4. But the fact remained that they were unsteady.
Conley returned in Game 3, and although Conley had begun to play better with the Jazz, he once again had to reintegrate himself into the team, something he’d had to do many times throughout the 2019-20 season and without much consistency and he wasn’t the only one. Eventually the Jazz fizzled and were sent packing after a Game 7 loss to the Nuggets.
Before the league shut down on March 11, 2020, Jordan Clarkson hadn’t even been with the Jazz for three months, Conley had missed 23 of the 55 games played, and the Jazz had just started to get used to playing with Bogdanovic.
The Jazz had a vision of the team they’d wanted to be, a high-powered offensive force, fueled by 3-pointers that was also capable of shutting things down on the defensive end. But circumstances didn’t allow them to reach their full potential.
This season, against all the odds, against the threat of the pandemic, while trudging through a grueling schedule, the Jazz’s vision was realized.
“We’re playing how we envisioned playing last year a little bit, we didn’t really get to do that with the injuries and guys in and out and all that,” Ingles said. “We’ve really taken off with the style and the 3s and playing defense and kind of doing what we always kind of thought this group could do.”
The continuity and continued chemistry building from last season to this season has been invaluable for the Jazz. It’s not hyperbolic to say that fielding mostly the same team and perfecting what the Jazz were working toward last season, has been the biggest benefit the Jazz have had. And that includes bringing back Derrick Favors, who not only already had chemistry with most of the Jazz roster, but is also a huge upgrade over Bradley at the backup center spot.
“The team has been together longer, it’s more seasoned,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “This team has had Bojan, J.C. and Mike together for a year, and last year in the bubble we didn’t have Bojan and we only had J.C. for half a year. The synergy that guys have acquired together, hopefully you can carry through into the playoffs.”
Of course, there are those that worry that Conley and Mitchell missing time at the end of the 2020-21 regular season might have upset the chemistry the team built, and if this was last year’s team, they’d probably be right to worry.
But, the Jazz are confident and at ease with where they are. More than anything the Jazz are pleased with the way Bogdanovic, Clarkson, Ingles and others stepped up and took on an increased role in the absence of Conley and Mitchell.
“I get where people are coming from,” Ingles said. “But I feel like the team that we are, we’re not relying on Don to come back in and iso for the whole game and if he scores 50 we win. If it was a situation like that I’d understand the concerns. I think the way we play — moving the ball, unselfish — we’re going to get guys involved and Donovan is the last person to worry about coming back in and trying to dominate or when he’ll get back in his flow, and we’ve got enough other players that will carry that load until he feels comfortable, which I feel will be very quickly.”
The other pieces of the equation that the Jazz have this year are the pain and anger and sting from losing in such an upsetting fashion against Denver.
“After the loss of Game 7, getting on the bus, I told everybody, I said ‘remember this feeling, remember everything, remember how you feel and then when you get tired, understand that we were tired in Game 7,’” Mitchell said. “That’s going to be the next level mentality and we got to go out there and do it all over again for these playoffs.”
The Jazz went into last year’s postseason without many eyes on them. No one expected them to make much noise and when they flamed out in the first round, they gave the rest of the league a reason to continue not expecting much from them.
“After the loss of Game 7, getting on the bus, I told everybody, I said ‘remember this feeling, remember everything, remember how you feel and then when you get tired, understand that we were tired in Game 7.’ That’s going to be the next level mentality and we got to go out there and do it all over again for these playoffs.” — Donovan Mitchell
This time, the Jazz couldn’t care less what the other teams think. They know that other teams, national analysts, and fans from around the league view them as an undeserving No. 1 team and that opponents would relish the opportunity to take down the team with the best record to prove a point.
“We have an X on our backs,” Mitchell said. “Teams are going to come out hungry for us. No one really expects us to do much, and I think that kind of feeds our fire, and we’ve just got to go out there and do what we do and try to become champions.”
If anything, that’s the biggest difference between last season and this season. The Jazz believe that they are the best team in the league. They believe that they can win a title. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The expectations are not external, they are coming within and the Jazz have every intention of meeting those expectations and laying everything on the line.
That’s not to say that it will work. This team has its work cut out for it in a loaded Western Conference full of confident and talented teams.
But this time around, the Jazz are ready. As ready as they’ll ever be,