Last week, I lavished praises on the Utah Jazz; about how refreshing and surprisingly good they have been in jumping off the starting block with a serious 10-3 slate. Leading the highly-competitive Western Conference. Which has the likes of that defending and dynastic Golden State Warriors, the equally-dangerous Phoenix Suns, the maturing Dallas Mavs, the star-studded LA Clippers, and the young, irreverent Memphis Grizzlies. Not to mention the resurgent Portland Trailblazers, plus the surging New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings.
Yup, and after praising them to high heavens, what do the Jazz do? They respond with a 3-game losing slump. Shades of the reporters’ uncanny jinx that happen when they praise teams or players for their great achievements and unexpected successes.
Previously, the Jazz had been jellin’ and jammin’ under the radar. They held the best record in the NBA at 10-3. Was first to reach 10 wins despite a difficult sked that included 10 on the road (tied for the most in the NBA), with the most number of back-to-back games (and all in different cities). On top of all that, 11 of these were against seeded teams that had made at least the play-in last season.
With that sterling 10-3 mark, the Jazz were no longer regarded as bottom-packers and likely ‘tankers’. The Jazz officially became classified as a dangerous and legit threat. And other teams have started to prepare for them more seriously now.
Then came the debacles. Successive losses to the Washington Wizards 121-112, the Philadelphia 76ers 105-98, and the New York Knicks 118-111 could have burst their bubble. But then, they bounce back, squeezing past that juggernaut Phoenix Suns 134-133. With a slate at 11-6, they do not seem to be headed in the direction they had been previously projected to take – which is to take center stage in the NBA Draft Lottery, expected to bring in a horde of superstars for the future.
Maybe the players received, but balked on the secret tanking memo from the Jazz front office. On the other hand, maybe the other dogs have simply had enough of this pesky pug. Maybe the tough sked has finally taken a physical toll on the team. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Coach Will Hardy and his crew are showing one and all what a group of lesser lights can do once it decides to work as a team.
Lauri Markkanen, fresh from a super-stud stint with the Finnish team in the recently-concluded Euro Cup, is having a breakout year worthy of an all-star nomination. Mike Conley has rediscovered his all-star point guard skills from his Memphis days, despite the absence of star receivers like Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovich. Jordan Clarkson has found a new joy in providing timely assists to his teammates. Kelly Olynyk, Jarred Vanderbilt, Colin Sexton, Malik Beasley, Talen Horton Tucker and the rest are taking advantage of the added minutes to show their true worth. Everyone in this scrappy team has something to prove. This is a pack of hungry wolves just waiting for their time.
And it seems that the time is now.
The Jazz are going through the league’s toughest schedule, and it doesn’t get any better till December. That being said, the Jazz are not ready to push the panic button. They know they have a friendlier sked in the coming month. They are beginning to believe in their collective strengths, and this shows in the stats where they lead in bench scoring. They are also near the top in 3-points made, assists, steals and offensive rebounding. The trust they have developed in each other has done wonders for each member of the team. Each one is playing relaxed ball, each one is stepping up when his number is called.
But it seems that the best thing that happened to the Utah Jazz was the arrival of Coach Will Hardy. Coach Will brings to the team a refreshing presence. His youth (he is younger than his veteran point guard Mike Conley) makes him easier to approach. His demeanor makes it easier for his players and staff to try new audacious strategies and plans with him. Yet he is a stickler for conditioning, and big in accountability. Much like Coach Eric Spoelstra who toiled and learned under that coaching maestro, Pat Riley, this younger version earned his chops under San Antonio’s benevolent coach Greg Popovich, and then briefly, assisted rookie-turned-Finals coach Ime Udoka in Boston. With Hardy at the helm, this bunch of supposedly mid-level stars and role players are learning and putting up an awesome show.
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of: The Cold Wire. Other pics courtesy of: The Salt Lake Tribune, SLC Dunk, Sports Illustrated, Deseret News, YouTube, Doc’s Sports, KSL Sports, Forbes and Sky Sports.