We’re definitely getting better. We’re growing and playing together and good things are happening. —Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert
SALT LAKE CITY — And the Jazz are still in 10th place?
That was some hole they dug themselves.
Now that they’ve dispatched their longtime nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, three times this season, this would normally be a good time to take a bow. For a lot of years, the Spurs treated Utah like crumbs. But the Jazz are currently on the league’s longest win streak — 10 games. Which you would think would have bought them some massive gains. It has, in some ways. They have a ton of momentum going into the final 25 games. But position? Power? Prestige?
Right now they’re a cute story, hoping to become a grand one.
The only thing they truly need at this point is to stay healthy and win the games they should. One of them might even be against the Spurs, whom they play once more this year.
With 12 of their last 25 games against teams with losing records, moving up 1½ games into eighth in the Western Conference is highly attainable, having played themselves into a position where they can feel in control of their destiny.
“I always feel that,” said Rudy Gobert. “We’re definitely getting better. We’re growing and playing together and good things are happening.”
Gobert knows all about confidence. With 7:05 left in their 101-99 Monday win, the 7-footer found himself unattended, 21 feet from the rim. So naturally he jacked up a shot. A half-minute later, the same thing happened. Except this time he shot an air ball.
If you can’t be perfect, be bodacious.
Because recent acquisition Jae Crowder didn’t know the plays, and because he was new to his teammates, he logically shouldn’t have introduced himself to the Jazz with a 15-point, five-rebound, three-assist game Sunday in Portland. But he did, which is how things have gone since the Jazz were declared extinct, a few weeks ago. Now they’re going through the league like wind through Kansas.
“I think we’ve been competing,” said a typically understated coach Quin Snyder.
Fact is Crowder is already a nice fit, because smart, physical, unselfish play is something the Jazz rely on. “He asked a question in our first film session and I told him I love it,” Snyder said.
The Jazz weren’t always smart on Monday, but they were brainy enough in the final minutes, after trailing by 13 in the fourth quarter.
As per tradition, they got help from different sources. When Ricky Rubio scored 34 points on Feb. 3 in an unexpected road win at San Antonio — with Donovan Mitchell out with the flu — the prevailing wisdom was, great, but Rubio isn’t going to score 34 every night.
Little did anyone know he would go for 20 and 29 the next two games. On Sunday, with Rubio out, Royce O’Neale showed up with 11 rebounds and six assists off the bench, with a team-high plus-minus rating of 28.
Monday Joe Ingles got 20 points, Derrick Favors 19, Gobert 10, Mitchell 25 and Crowder 14.
Crowdsourcing is such good business strategy.
The simple truth is that this is among the most adaptable teams in Jazz history. In their glory years, they were perfectly consistent. But take a key player out of the lineup and they were in trouble. Main players rarely missed games. But this year’s Jazz have more multi-position players than ever. If someone goes down, Snyder sorts through his roster like he’s picking out a necktie.
Next thing he knows, they’re walking off with a win.
During their win streak, the Jazz, on varying nights, were missing one or more of the following: Rodney Hood, Thabo Sefolosha, Mitchell, Rubio, Joe Johnson and Alec Burks. Didn’t matter. Back when Crowder’s father, Corey, played for the Jazz, the end of the bench was virtually unexplored territory; nowadays the reserves are mini-celebrities, as well known as a local legislator.
A month ago there were rumors of locker room dissent; now a group hug is in order.
Monday’s Basketball Power Index on ESPN had the Jazz with a 76 percent chance of making the playoffs. Also in their favor is that, for the time being, their health is better than that of several other teams in the West. Paul Millsap has been out in Denver, DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans, Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and the Clippers, well, their best player is now in Detroit. Meanwhile, the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge is on the sideline with Kawhi Leonard.
All are ahead of the Jazz in the standings.
But none are ahead in momentum.