KISSIMMEE, Fla. — If there is anything that the Utah Jazz have learned this season, it is that adversity can be unifying.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes adversity can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a tipping point that leads to irrevocable damage. That could have happened to this Jazz team, but the players wouldn’t let it.
“There’s been a lot of adversity,” Rudy Gobert said Tuesday night. “Not just for me but for all of us as a team, for the rest of the world, too. It’s been an interesting few months. I’m really proud of the way we’ve been able to handle that as a team, as human beings.”
Going through traumatic events, facing obstacles, being knocked down and getting up as a team, as a unit, can be uplifting even in the darkest of times, and especially in the minutes following a crushing Game 7 defeat in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
In order to look forward and understand how the Jazz are feeling about what the future holds, it’s necessary to look back.
Six months ago, tension within the team was steadily growing, namely between the Jazz’s two stars, Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Then, like a lightning bolt meant to strike the most vulnerable and spread a wildfire of doubt, the coronavirus pandemic hit the NBA, starting with Gobert and then Mitchell.
At the center of the league’s decision to suspend the season, which was already enough to deal with, the Jazz then had to contend with rumors that Mitchell and Gobert were no longer on speaking terms and that the future of the franchise’s core was in jeopardy.
Behind the scenes, the Jazz knew differently. They knew they were built to fight through the challenges life had dealt and come out the other side better for it. Even so, their internal confidence in what the team was capable of achieving was doubted every step of the way.
“We went from being an ‘unsalvageable’ team about three months ago to this, and I don’t think anybody outside of us expected that,” Mitchell said.
What “this” is, is a team that, despite even more trials and tribulations to come, was able to take the third-seeded Denver Nuggets to the very last second of a grueling seven-game series in the playoffs, and do so while being more united than ever.
“I’m proud of the way we handled everything that happened within our team,” Gobert said. “I don’t think a lot of teams would be able to go through that, I’m talking about especially Donovan and myself. Being able to come back and play the way we played even though we came up short, I think it’s very encouraging for the future.”
When the Jazz arrived at the NBA’s Orlando bubble to restart the 2019-20 season they did so knowing that very little was expected of them.
After the controversy and drama of the previous months, the team was dealt another blow when their second-leading scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic, had season-ending wrist surgery in May. Then, the day before their playoff series against the Denver Nuggets began, Mike Conley left the bubble to be with his wife for the birth of their third child.
“We had pictures up of what every reporter said,” Mitchell said. “Every single one had Nuggets in four, five, six (games). One or two had them in seven. We saw it, we used it as fuel.”
“We had pictures up of what every reporter said. Every single one had Nuggets in four, five, six (games). One or two had them in seven. We saw it, we used it as fuel.” — Donovan Mitchell
Knowing they were underdogs, the Jazz still managed to build an improbable 3-1 lead. Losses in games 5 and 6, along with the visible anger and frustration from the Jazz, had many once again wondering if the team was too fractured to move on.
Then, in the moments after a Game 7 loss to the Nuggets that came down to the last shot, the Jazz’s biggest stars were united once again.
“We all know that we love each other, so the support in there was great,” Conley said of the scene in the locker room after the game.
The players could have come out of the locker room and given reporters noncommittal and fleeting answers about where the team goes from here. They could have become more angry, they could have blamed one another, they could have broken.
But the Jazz came out of the locker room Tuesday with a message of hope for the future of the team.
“We want more,” Gobert said. “To have my teammates’ support through these last few months, especially since we’ve been in the bubble and after everything that happened, it was really something that lifted me up. ... We came up short, but I have no doubt that we’re going to win a championship. Might be painful right now but I guarantee that all of us will come back better.”
Outside of getting a healthy Bogdanovic back, the Jazz don’t really know what “better” looks like for next season. In all honesty they don’t know what next season will look like at all. And it’s hard to imagine Mitchell doing much better than what he showed over the last seven games when he set historical numbers with multiple 50-point performances and reaching new heights as a leader.
“We want more. To have my teammates’ support through these last few months, especially since we’ve been in the bubble and after everything that happened, it was really something that lifted me up. ... We came up short, but I have no doubt that we’re going to win a championship. Might be painful right now but I guarantee that all of us will come back better.” — Rudy Gobert
But, after the mental and physical toll that the last few months have had on the Jazz, preparing for another season of battle together doesn’t seem like much of a reach to them.
“This isn’t the last of it,” Mitchell said. “This is me scratching the surface. I know what I can do. I know what I’ve worked for, I know how hard I work and I know how hard this team has worked and this won’t be the end of it. That’s really what’s fueling me because this ain’t the end. This is just the beginning, this is just the beginning. I’m ready to go hoop again right now. I think we all are. This is just the beginning.”
The Jazz’s 2019-20 run has come to an end. On Wednesday, they’ll leave the NBA’s bubble and return home to await news of what next season will look like.
They’ll watch from home as the Nuggets continue on in the Western Conference semifinals, and while the Jazz are not happy about being eliminated, they’re unified in their belief that they’re a better team than they were before, and that the best is yet to come.