A common sports cliche is that there are teams that can turn it on and turn it off, as if there’s a proverbial switch available to the most skilled of teams that allows them to enter “win mode” with a mental on-off button.

For a team like the Utah Jazz, a team that is trying to burst through the hurdle that has separated them from the top-tier teams in the NBA for years, counting on being a team that can turn it on and off at will is dangerous. The teams in front of them, the teams that already know what it takes to move on to a conference final playoff series and further, are too good and they’ll smash that on-off switch with a hammer, as the Los Angeles Clippers did in last season’s second round.

“There is a point when we’ve had opportunities to push away and break open a game. That’s the point where we’ve got to recognize and feel the game and play those possessions with more focus and more recognition of that point in the game and how pivotal it is.” — Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder

There is a different kind of switch that the Jazz need to be able to use though, and like the one described above, it’s a mental switch. 

“There is a point when we’ve had opportunities to push away and break open a game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s the point where we’ve got to recognize and feel the game and play those possessions with more focus and more recognition of that point in the game and how pivotal it is.”

The Jazz went into the All-Star break the heels of a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. In that game, as they’ve done nearly a dozen times this season, they built up a substantial lead that they were unable to hold on to.

Despite that loss and the ones like it that came earlier in the season, the Jazz have not lost hope. Three-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert said he believes in this team and believes they can find that extra gear.

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“It’s about embracing the wins and the losses, and I believe in our group,” Gobert said. “I really believe that we can accomplish our goal. … Everything that we’ve been through only helped us grow and have prepared us even for that moment when it comes. I’m excited for the second part of the season and I know that we’re going to be ready to make a push.”

That push begins Feb. 25 with the Dallas Mavericks at Vivint Arena, includes multiple long, grueling road trips against some of the most lethal teams in the league, and after just 24 games ends on April 10. That’s how long the Jazz have to find it within themselves to be a team that can earn and maintain a lead against playoff-caliber teams.

That’s not much time and the Jazz are keenly aware of the need for urgency.

“We’ve got to learn quickly,” Snyder said. “Start developing the ability to push the lead as opposed to essentially giving it back.”

The way Gobert sees it, the Jazz have gone through adversity this season that forced them to look at the game in simplistic terms, a lesson he thinks is going to buoy them through the homestretch of the season.

“Our team, in a way, needed that,” Gobert said, reflecting on the injuries, illnesses and losses the Jazz have suffered. “We needed that adversity to learn and to go back to the basics and rebuild our habits. I’m kind of happy that it happened now rather than later and now we have a different perspective on how to win and the things we need to do, not to just be a good team, but if we want to be a championship team.”

It’s good that the Jazz have not lost hope on the ultimate goal of contending for a title, because if they aren’t going to believe in themselves, it’s possible that no one would. From outside the organization, the Jazz have become an NBA afterthought.

As the NBA world descended on Cleveland for the All-Star festivities, hot topics of conversation around league circles flowed freely and rarely included the Jazz. As one league executive put it, “I think most people respect the Jazz, but don’t take them very seriously as a deep threat.”

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NBA scouts, agents and players agree that the Jazz have been figured out. That’s the same sentiment that has seemed to settle over the fanbase like a layer of fog. There’s a general feeling that the Jazz had their chance last season and now they’re destined for another first- or second-round exit.

If this was the 2020-21 Jazz team that blew through the regular season, drowning teams in a barrage of 3-pointers and blowing out even the toughest of opponents en route to a No. 1 seed, maybe there would be more belief in the Jazz. But this team has struggled against top-tier teams, been beaten by the dregs of the league, has had more signature losses than signature wins, and is positioned in the middle of the Western Conference.

Forget having an on and off switch. The Jazz need to be “on” at all times, prepared for teams to strike and to strike hard; there’s no “off” option available to them. Which makes that next step of development even more important than ever.

The Jazz need to come together for the final 24 games and find the switch that takes them from winning a game, to closing it out strong.

Gobert believes that this last portion of the season gives them a runway that they have’t had during the 2021-22 campaign. While the early part of the season was about incorporating new players and settling in, the middle section of the season didn’t let them get into any sort of rhythm.

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“This is the year where we’ve been through the most,” Gobert said. “Especially with (Donovan Mitchell)  missing a lot of games and myself missing a lot of games and the COVID situation where we had like seven guys available at one point.”

Gobert and the rest of the Jazz are hoping that the worst of the season is in the rearview mirror and that they can go full steam ahead so that they enter the postseason playing their best.

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And that idea of playing the best basketball they can is key because the Jazz don’t feel like they’ve done that in the playoffs yet. They’ve either been shorthanded, injured or played uncharacteristically bad at the exact wrong moments.

It’s not even a first- or second-round exit that Gobert said would disappoint him the most.

“What would be frustrating — what would be disappointing — would be us not playing up to our potential,” Gobert said. “Up to what we know we can do as a team. We know what we can accomplish, now it’s about executing it and doing it together.”

So while there are other teams in the league that might be able to turn it on when the playoffs begin and can rely on past successes to fuel them, the Jazz have a small window to develop better habits and distance themselves from their past failures. There are not many who believe the Jazz can do it, but for now, Rudy Gobert still has hope.

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