January was supposed to be the Utah Jazz’s proving ground.
Everything was set up perfectly to test the Jazz’s mettle, leaving them with the second half of the season to adjust and prepare for the playoffs. The first calendar month of 2022 included games against the top teams across the league, a heavy road schedule that included multiple back-to-back sets, and matchups against critical opponents that the Jazz could come up against in the playoffs.
But, instead of preparing the Jazz for the latter half of the season, January’s schedule pulled the rug out from under them and left them struggling to find their footing.
It was certainly the toughest one-month stretch of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert’s careers, but even seasoned veterans Mike Conley, Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside, who have a combined 38 years of NBA experience, said that they’d never really experienced a stretch like the one the Jazz went through to start 2022.
“Last year we had a great regular season,” Gobert said. “I didn’t miss any games, Mike missed a few games, Donavon missed a few games, but we were able to keep our rhythm and we were very consistent. We ended up having the best record in the league. And we learned that having the best record in the league doesn’t grant you a championship. This year we went through some (expletive), went to some adversity.”
Injuries, fatigue, illnesses, COVID and the unrelenting schedule hit the Jazz all at once and there was never really a moment when they were able to come up for air, regroup and find any kind of substantial rhythm.
Frustrations ran high. There were times when the Jazz seemed to lack identity outside of being a middle-of-the-pack team that was inconsistent, and that’s not an identity that any team in the NBA wants to have.
With most of the team healthy the Jazz entered the All-Star break in February having won six of their final seven games before the season intermission.
“Something happened within our team, individually and collectively,” Gobert said. “We understood that we want to go in the right direction. Something happened and now we’re able to build upon that. When that shift happened I was injured so it was frustrating, but it was also exciting to see.”
But the Jazz were not celebrating having turned a corner. Instead, there were smaller celebrations when the Jazz found themselves fighting through moments that they didn’t fight through earlier in the season. A timely rebound, a dive on the floor for a loose ball, a solid possession with crisp defensive effort — those called for momentary celebrations.
Then a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers just before the break reminded the Jazz that they had more work to do.
“I think (the loss) to L.A. really helped,” Mitchell said. “Because we sat on that for a week.”
But time is running out for the Jazz. With few wins against top-tier opponents and a spot in the middle of the Western Conference playoff pack, the Jazz came out of the break with just 24 games left in the regular season — 14 road games and 10 home games. They can’t wait a week to let a loss sink in. They can’t go through any more huge mentality shifts.
“We have no choice,” Mitchell said. “We have to do it.”
It’s put up or shut up time.
The Jazz started their post-All-Star slate with wins over the West’s fifth-place Dallas Mavericks and the league-leading Phoenix Suns, but again the upcoming schedule will not be forgiving.
March will either make or break this Utah Jazz team.
According to tankathon.com, the Jazz came out of the All-Star break with the fifth-most difficult remaining schedule, behind the Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Lakers and New York Knicks. While the website’s strength of schedule rankings take into account the difficulty of opponents, it doesn’t factor in travel or home games vs. road games.
The Jazz and Lakers both top the list with the most road games remaining (14). But the Lakers longest road trip of the season is just four games. And although the Knicks and Bucks have the fewest road games of the group (12), the majority of the Knicks’ road games come in a single seven-game road trip that begins in Philadelphia before immediately taking them to Phoenix and then ending the seven-game slog in Brooklyn.
Eleven of the Jazz’s post-break road games are split between two road trips, one five-game trip, and a six-game trip at the end of March that begins in New York and ends in Los Angeles.
Through March and the final five games of the season that come in early April, the Jazz will play 14 games against teams that are either playoff-bound or fighting for a spot in the end-of-season play-in tournament. Nothing is going to come easy for the Jazz, but there’s no more room for excuses.
Any injury or illness that arises during the next few weeks will not be a reason for the Jazz to falter, but rather an opportunity for them to prove that they are better than they were in January and that they can handle some curveballs.
“It’s going to be on us to go out there and find ways to continuously get better,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t matter who we play, doesn’t matter what night it is. Every night we’re going to get everybody’s best shot, so we’ve got to go out there and do it.”
Recently, the Jazz have stuck to a message that they are their own worst enemy and that they have the talent and the ability to beat any team in the NBA so long as every player on the roster goes into each game willing to win by any means necessary.
March though, is the foe that looms largest for the Jazz.
It is the final 24 games of the season that will test the Jazz’s collective will and it will tempt them to give into frustration and fatigue and it will try to break down their bodies with a grueling schedule.
Who is this Jazz team? What is their identity? And, what are they capable of accomplishing? How they perform over this last stretch of the season will likely answer those questions, for better or worse.