As the Jazz turn now toward the playoffs against Oklahoma City on Sunday, their onramp to that second season is less than wide open. It was and then it wasn’t. It isn’t.
The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport the Jazz were piloting against the Warriors on Tuesday night quickly transformed into a B-210 Datsun on Wednesday against the Blazers. And perhaps the most significant aspect to that sudden change is that the first game didn’t mean much to the opposition, the latter one did.
Now every minute of every game matters to everyone.
Not that the past is inconsequential.
The most oft-cited number about the Jazz, and the most impressive, is their record from the last week of January until regular season’s end, when they won 29 games and lost six.
Who does that? It’s easy to identify who doesn’t do it — a team that started 19-28.
The 1996-97 Jazz Finals team did it, winning 41 of its final 47 games.
The 1997-98 Jazz Finals team did it, winning 32 of its final 37 games.
But those teams were predicted to burn down the track in the NBA’s biggest race, boosted as they were by two future Hall of Famers.
UTAH JAZZ VS. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Game 1 • Jazz at Thunder, 4:30 p.m. Sunday, TNT
Game 2 • Jazz at Thunder, 6 p.m. Wednesday, NBA TV
Game 3 • Thunder at Jazz, 8 p.m. April 21, ESPN
Game 4 • Thunder at Jazz, 8:30 p.m. April 23, TNT
Game 5 (if necessary) • Jazz at Thunder, TBD April 25
Game 6 (if necessary) • Thunder at Jazz, TBD April 27
Game 7 (if necessary) • Jazz at Thunder, TBD April 29
This season’s Jazz iteration pulled off something all too rare in the NBA — the unexpected. A lot of experts think — usually correctly — they pretty much can pencil in which teams will make the playoffs, which teams will contend for a title before the season starts.
They could not foresee one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history by a Jazz team that had garnered sympathy across the league when Gordon Hayward stoned it in free agency, but not any realistic projections as a playoff team in the ultra-competitive West.
But … does that sort of eye-pop make them great? Does it prepare them for what comes next, what comes now?
The Jazz certainly didn’t look great in Portland in a loss that dropped them from the West’s third spot to its fifth. They did look great in their 40-point win over Golden State.
Royce O’Neale said he thinks his team is great, but that referred more to the camaraderie of the group than its competitive accomplishment. In that regard, as three different Jazz players said this week: “We still have work to do.”
You have to wonder if the Jazz’s 2018 Great Surprise will work against them or jolt them when new heavy meaning is attached to every game, when both teams are hitting the throttle hard. Particularly on the road, where the Jazz will start the series with OKC.
They looked unsettled and … nervous against the Blazers. And they were punished for it.
Quin Snyder wants no part of any premature pronouncement that the Jazz could be anything close to great. There’s still too much uncovered bad pavement up ahead.
He concedes in quiet moments that what his team achieved in the run to the postseason was notable, not by way of anybody’s brilliance, rather in the everyday grind — none of which the experts saw — of a bunch of players collectively setting a goal and a jaw as they ascended to blind heights.
“We are just a group of guys that really play for each other,” he said the other day. “There is some toughness to this team that has shown itself over the course of the season that maybe you didn’t see right away.”
No. You did not see it because nobody did, at least not anyone not named Rudy Gobert. You saw a team that might be headed for the lottery.
Along the way — some say the pivot came in an overtime road win against Detroit — something out of the ordinary happened. The Jazz awakened. And it wasn’t just against lousy teams. They beat Toronto, Golden State, New Orleans, San Antonio, Portland, Minnesota, Indiana and the like. Still, the six losses, especially the last one, remind everyone that the engine is not yet fully tuned.
None of those wins or defeats matter now, other than the positive pattern they set in the good times for a team made dangerous by its defense, ball movement, and belief — at least the one outwardly spoken — that those last 35 games are the truth, not the 37 that preceded them.
How the Jazz will fare in a righteous playoff setting is uncertain, although, as Derrick Favors put it, “We feel like we’ve already been in the playoffs for weeks now.”
Said Joe Ingles: “We always try to play the same way we have been playing. We’ve made a focus of trying to play 48 minutes as consistently as we can.”
Snyder added: “There are certain things as a team you can control, you try to control them as best as you can. That’s our focus. If we can do that and compete, we have a chance to have success.”
So the Jazz will try to control Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
They might win this first-round series, they might lose it.
Either way, greater future success is no longer a pipe dream. It’s a couple of medium-sized steps away, but only a couple. With the emergence of Donovan Mitchell and Gobert, it feels like the early years here with John Stockton and Karl Malone. Everyone realizes now that 2017-18 wasn’t a step backward, it’s more of a step up, and a setup for a Jazz run that could fire the emotions of basketball fans here for a fistful of years, maybe more.
“What makes this a story [now] is that nobody expected it,” Mitchell said. “The thing is, we knew we were going to be good … as long as we stayed the course.”
That, the Jazz have done. The question remains: Can they do it when it matters most?
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.