Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert explain what is so different about the Utah Jazz this time around after a humbling first-round exit last season
Wednesday 14 April 2021 11:00, UK
They don’t call it a growing pleasure. Learning experiences are painful for a reason - you become harder, tougher and better prepared for future situations.
It’s like learning to play guitar: the first session your fingers might be sore. The next time they might bleed. After that, they’ll be sensitive. But over time they become rough and calloused, you get better and can play for hours on end.
Most of the best players in NBA history have been through gutting losses before winning.
Sure, anomalies like Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan entered the league into a perfect situation that saw them win it all, pretty much straight away, but even the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James went through hell before winning their first championships in their seventh and ninth seasons, respectively.
If you asked them, they’d probably talk about how the painful losses made them better.
So when Donovan Mitchell was trying to lead his Utah Jazz deep into the playoffs last year, were we really so surprised that they were knocked out in the first round?
The 2019-20 season saw his team add a new ball-handler who plays a similar position in Mike Conley, so the on-court fit had to be developed. There were also relationships that needed rebuilding after Rudy Gobert drew the ire of the league, fans and his own team-mates after being the first player in the NBA to publicly contract coronavirus.
They then joined a Floridian bubble after months away from the court and came up against an equally upstart Denver Nuggets, only to suffer an agonising loss after Mitchell missed a clean shot in the dying seconds of Game 7.
“We came in [to this season] with a lot more focus and determination,” Gobert told Sky Sports. “Nothing was going to distract us from our goal.”
Another year of growth has seen this core continue to improve its already good chemistry, but the sharpened focus on defense has made them better. The Jazz are holding opponents to the fourth-lowest point average this season compared to ninth in 2019-20 - which has helped them win 75 per cent of their games this year, an improvement of 14 per cent.
The two-time Defensive Player Of The Year said: “The focus for us is to have a great second half of the year. Keep getting better and when the playoffs come, just play our best basketball and try to reach our goal, which is to win a championship.”
There’s that word: ‘championship’. It’s very much a possibility this season.
Winning often cures chemistry issues - shout out the 2002 LA Lakers - and with the best record in the league, reports that he and Mitchell had fallen out last year due to Gobert’s laissez-faire attitude towards health and safety protocols seem like a distant memory.
It also helps when your best player continues to get better. Mitchell has improved across the board: his scoring is up more than two points per game, he is getting to the free-throw line one more time, his field goal percentage and three-point percentages are up, and he has added an assist to each of his games this season.
Health is part of it. The Jazz have lost just 86 games to injury so far, according to Spotrac but Mitchell’s supporting cast has more evenly distributed responsibilities thanks to the best players being available. Plus, Conley is more settled this season, just his second outside of Memphis.
They have a sixth player scoring in double digits, rather than five last year, and two of those are coming off the bench - something that Mitchell considers important to maintain success in the playoffs after last year’s defeat.
He told Sky Sports: “You look at the playoffs, the importance of having a good starting five is essential, I think it’s key. Just to have guys who get each other, where they need to be, understand and have a good feel for the game. But with our group, we’ve got great depth.”
Depth is needed. The team had to rely on rookie Juwan Morgan to start all seven games last year, after Bojan Bogdanovic - a 20 point scorer during the regular season - was out for the playoffs. Joe Ingles struggled at times with Conley finding his feet in the post-season - the Jazz needed that extra stud.
Mitchell continued: “I’ll break it down to our series against Denver: you’ve got myself, Mike or Rudy and on the Nuggets you had Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic - we’re always going to do our thing.
"If we’re going to be consistent, it’s the second unit guys: Georges Niang had a big game, Jordan Clarkson had a hell of a series, Juwan coming in and being a starter, from not even playing to being a starter.”
Morgan was fine, but he only averaged one point and three rebounds in the Nuggets series. He has missed much of this year but the team has grown nonetheless.
This season, Clarkson and Ingles are coming off the bench, averaging just shy of 30 points between them each game. It has helped the Jazz’s bench go from scoring 33.6 points per game last year, good enough for 23rd in the league, to being the sixth best so far in 2020-21 at 38.6 points.
Bogdanovic’s scoring has dipped slightly in his return, but Conley has improved. Gobert is his usual terrifying self - currently second in the league with 2.8 blocks per game - and acting as the defensive anchor of the team.
After experiencing pain, the Jazz have recovered. They have the best record in the league and have a championship or bust mentality that is not allowing them to let up in any area - from the stars to the bench, on defense or offense.
There will always be distractions, but they have managed to develop the talent, build chemistry and keep their eye on the prize, as Gobert explained: “With all the procedures and testing and restrictions, it’s not fun, but we know these are all the things that we need to do to keep competing. We know that every game matters and we know that we have to be focused.”