The Utah Jazz seemed like a team that had been walking through the desert for weeks without water or like a group stuck in a room that was losing air. They needed a win and it didn’t matter who the opponent was or what players were available. They just needed a taste of victory so that they could breathe again.
“To get a win like that,” Mike Conley said, “sometimes that’s all you need to get back on track.”
Once again the Jazz were dealing with a shorthanded roster. On Wednesday night they were without Donovan Mitchell (concussion), Rudy Gobert (left calf strain), Joe Ingles (left ACL tear), Hassan Whiteside (lower back strain), Jordan Clarkson (right knee soreness), Danuel House (health and safety protocol) and their head coach Quin Snyder (health and safety protocol).
That’s not exactly a list that inspires confidence. But after only winning four games over the last month and riding a five-game losing streak into Wednesday night’s matchup against the Denver Nuggets, the Jazz were ready for the fight.
“Seems like everything is just that much harder,” Conley said of the Jazz’s recent stretch. “Like just double time, anything we do is going to be tough. And we knew it wasn’t going to be a blowout. … We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Just happy to see one, you know? Put a W up there for the home crowd and do it in the way that we did it.”
The Jazz beat the Nuggets, 108-104, and Conley was right — it wasn’t easy. The Jazz needed near perfect fourth quarters from veterans Conley, Rudy Gay and Royce O’Neale, they needed a career-high 18 points from two-way player Trent Forrest and they needed rookie Jared Butler to carve up the defense.
But even more than that, they needed Conley and Udoka Azubuike diving on the court for loose balls, they needed every one of the eight offensive rebounds the team grabbed, they needed to be laser-focused with the ball, only giving up a combined seven turnovers throughout the night. They needed every good screen and every quick decision and the best part about the game was that the team did all of those things.
“Those were the plays that were the most exciting for our team,” Conley said. “I think that’s the important part. It wasn’t the dunks, it wasn’t the 3s. … The big plays for us were when we scrapped for a loose ball or came up with a steal. … It’s plays like that, that signify how all the guys were out there playing tonight. We wanted to leave it all out there and we’re proud.”
While the Jazz have been struggling and have dealt with everything under the sun over the last few weeks, from COVID-19 and a tough schedule to losing a player for the rest of the season to an injury, they have still felt like they are gaining ground and learning important lessons.
If nothing else, they are trying to come away from this brutal stretch knowing that they have been able to look at different lineups, give young players opportunities, and to relearn the kind of mental toughness that is necessary for a team to win.
“Competing and playing together,” assistant coach Alex Jensen said. “After tonight, the thing that we can point out is all the small things … we did a lot of those tonight and you can build on it. If everybody does those little things and defends and competes, we’re pretty good.”
The Jazz came away from Wednesday’s game feeling like they could exhale for a moment, like they did something worth celebrating, if only momentarily. Because the nature of the NBA schedule means that there’s always something else around the corner.
The Jazz can breathe for right now, but by Friday night they’ll have to be ready to do it all over again, no matter who is available, against the Brooklyn Nets.