THE CELEBRATION STARTED right in front of the Utah Jazz‘s bench.
It was the second game of the season for both the Golden State Warriors and Jazz, and Jonas Jerebko had just punctuated the Warriors’ second-half comeback with a final-second tip-in off a Kevin Durant miss.
The gleeful mosh pit made its way back to center court as Curry zigzagged toward the Warriors’ bench like a kid running out for recess, bumping a shirtless Andre Iguodala along the way.
Jonas Jerebko tips in Kevin Durant’s missed shot in the final seconds to secure a 124-123 win over the Jazz.
The scene could have been considered a strange sign of status for the Jazz. A dynastic team doesn’t celebrate an Oct. 19 win with such enthusiasm without believing that it had just stolen a road win from a quality opponent.
Expectations had certainly soared in Salt Lake City in the span of a year. The Jazz’s slow start last season surprised nobody; they were a franchise reeling from losing its lone All-Star in Gordon Hayward via free agency, and a pair of extended absences for center Rudy Gobert due to early-season injuries seemed to seal the Jazz’s fate of heading back to familiar territory of the draft lottery.
It’s funny how a 29-6 run to end the 2017-18 regular season — a remarkable turnaround for a team that was nine games under .500 deep into January 2018 — the rapid evolution of Donovan Mitchell and a trip to the second round of the playoffs can change perceptions.
“We went from a team where essentially everybody overlooked us all last year to coming out and pretty much everybody wanted our head from the beginning.”
It’s why the Jazz, after running it back with essentially the same roster — early-season Warriors hero Jerebko notwithstanding — entered this season anticipated to be one of the West’s best teams, as Gobert anchored an elite defense and Mitchell continued his ascension to stardom.
Yet, two months into the 2018-19 season, the Jazz sat a few games under .500, looking up at all but one team in the West standings.
“We went from a team where essentially everybody overlooked us all last year to coming out and pretty much everybody wanted our head from the beginning,” Mitchell told ESPN. “It was a little bit of an adjustment period. It took a little longer than we anticipated.”
Yeah, winning 15 of their past 20 games and nine of their past 10 indicates that the Jazz are indeed just fine.
THE BOX SCORE line disgusted Donovan Mitchell: 31 points, 35 shots, zero assists.
“That’s not how I play. I know I’m still being aggressive, but I’ve got to be smart.”
Mitchell has often been a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer, epitomized by the embarrassing outing he declared immediately afterward would never happen again, when coaches and teammates expressed confidence in a second-year player dealing with the growing pains of being a go-to guy.
“It takes time to improve, and it takes competitive experience,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Sometimes players are getting better, but it isn’t immediately visible. Donovan is hungry, he works and he’s been improving all year.”
The sophomore’s early-season slump extended into December as Utah as a whole tried to fight its way out of an offensive funk. But Mitchell is making his poor shooting numbers a distant memory, his spectacular recent play serving as a symbol of the Jazz’s turnaround from a 14-17 start to a 15-5 run entering Wednesday night’s matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.
A late-November trade for Kyle Korver helped, addressing Utah’s glaring need for 3-point shooting, as the 37-year-old remains one of the league’s most lethal catch-and-shoot threats, whether he’s spotting up or racing off screens.
But the offense ebbs and flows as Mitchell goes, and the Jazz have had to ask even more of Mitchell recently because of injuries to every point guard on the roster. He has responded with the best stretch of his career.
Mitchell is averaging 30.4 points and 6.1 assists over the past 10 games, with a true shooting percentage of 58.1 during that span. He’s attacking first and reading on the fly, as opposed to overthinking as he did earlier in the season.
“It’s just making it easier on myself,” Mitchell said. “A lot of my shots I took early in the season were tough shots, shots you take when you’re on a roll. I’m thinking those are the shots that I have to make, [but] no, just make it simple for myself.
“It’s a different feeling coming in and having everybody kind of lock in on you, as opposed to last year when you kind of crept in.”
IF MITCHELL’S SCORING is the sizzle in Utah, getting stops is the steak.
The Jazz stormed into the middle of the West playoff pack last season because of an elite defense, ranking first by a significant margin in defensive efficiency once Gobert got healthy.
Utah was just pretty good on that end of the floor for the first two months this season, allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranked eighth in the NBA. Its defensive efficiency over the past 20 games has improved to 102.9, second in the NBA behind the Milwaukee Bucks in that span, as the Jazz’s sense of urgency increased.
The Jazz admit that a sense of accomplishment seeped into the franchise after last season’s success, that they were lulled into thinking they could simply pick up where they left off with all of their core pieces returning. It was evident in gritty details of Utah’s defense, such as getting back in transition and applying ball pressure on opposing guards.
“It’s human nature,” Gobert told ESPN. “There were the expectations — rightfully, because we were one of the best teams in the league the second half of the season. We kind of forgot why, forgot what got us there, that edge.
“Not that we didn’t want to win earlier, but I would say that the understanding that defense is the key for us to win games came back. Now we come out every night with defense on our mind.”
A refreshed mentality wasn’t the only thing the Jazz needed to resume their status as an elite defensive team. Gobert, who earned Defensive Player of the Year despite missing 26 games last season, had to adapt to teams forcing him to play further and further from his comfort zone.
“We all recognize that the league is evolving,” Snyder said, referring to the trend toward perimeter-oriented, playmaking bigs such as Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Boston’s Al Horford and Memphis’ Marc Gasol.
“We needed to adjust, and that meant Rudy had to adjust in order to continue to have opportunities to impact the game on the same level he has throughout his career. I told him, ‘You are one of the few bigs that can do this, and if you do, you can be even more impactful.'”
Opponents want to make Gobert defend on the perimeter, whether he has to switch onto guards or contest shooting bigs at the 3-point line, which has been his biggest defensive weakness throughout his career.
“This year, every team had the game plan how to try to negate my impact,” said Gobert, whose defensive rating over the past 20 games is 98.5, back in the exclusive neighborhood he lived in last season, as the Jazz coaching staff had to tweak schemes to allow Gobert to still play to his rim-protecting strengths as much as possible.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot better this year defensively being able to close out to shooting bigs but still being able to protect the rim.”
One thing Utah can’t tweak? The schedule, another factor in Utah’s early inconsistency that the Jazz might grumble under their breath about but aren’t eager to discuss publicly.
“No comment,” forward Joe Ingles said, rolling his eyes.
During that 14-17 start, the Jazz played 19 teams with winning records, the fourth most in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The bigger problem: The Jazz had only 12 home dates during that stretch, the fewest in the league.
“We can’t make excuses,” power forward Derrick Favors said. “We played some good teams, and they beat us fair and square. I think in the early part we were just trying to find ourselves, find out who we are.
“Now we’re starting to find it again.”