It seems like a million years ago that legendary center Shaquille O’Neal and Utah Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell were locked in a nationally televised awkward moment
It had everyone wishing that they could jump into the TV and give Mitchell a pat on the back. Well, maybe not a pat on the back (don’t forget to do social distancing, people!), more of a reassuring nod. After all, the Jazz had just wrapped up their seventh straight victory on Jan. 21, and at the time were breathing down the necks of the Los Angeles Lakers for the top seed in the West.
Shaq questioned whether Mitchell could ever take his game to the next level. “I said tonight that you are one of my favorite players, but you don’t have what it takes to get to the next level. I said it on purpose, and I wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?”
Mitchell’s curt reply, in case you’ve forgotten: “All right.”
That response has symbolized the Jazz’s season thus far. At the start of the season, hardly anyone outside of Salt Lake City picked the team as a contender on the level of the squads in Los Angeles. And with a relatively quiet offseason where their biggest acquisition was Derrick Favors, who joined the team after a one-year hiatus in New Orleans, why would anyone pick the Jazz?
The last image we had of the team was a heartbreaking rimmed out 3 from Mike Conley in the dying seconds of Game 7 of one of the most thrilling first round series in NBA history. It was a series in which Mitchell averaged 36 points and had two 50-point games, yet it still wasn’t enough to stop Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets from advancing to the next stage.
The Jazz have always been... good. A great team, even. But teams from Utah are hardly ever talked about in the same breath as a LeBron James-led squad, or even fellow small-market teams featuring a two-time MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo like the Milwaukee Bucks. People thought they had the Jazz figured out. Stop Mitchell, and Utah’s offense crumbles. Get the ball away from the paint so Rudy Gobert can’t hassle the shot, and the Jazz’s defense could be solved.
But there’s a different spirit to the Jazz this season. It’s a wordless, menacing spirit, similar to Mitchell’s reply to Shaq. It’s the type of spirit that you (or someone you know) have when you feel like you deserve more, yet are not given enough respect, attention, or faith in your capabilities. That’s why it’s so riveting to witness the Jazz play basketball this season. They’re not just out to beat you; they’re out to make you actually say that their squad is better than yours.
Witness their Feb. 25 battle against the Los Angeles Lakers where the Jazz blew out the defending champions, 114-89. The Lakers had a built-in excuse if the game got out of hand because of the absence of Anthony Davis. But the Jazz weren’t satisfied with simply gutting out a hard-fought win against Los Angeles. They wanted to annihilate the team currently on top of the mountain, and that’s what happened when the floodgates opened in the second period.
The Jazz rained down triple after triple, some of them coming off of gorgeous ball movement leading to Jordan Clarkson triples, or in transition with Royce O’Neale stopping and popping with confidence. A lot also came from Gobert and Conley pick and rolls, where Gobert would set a screen then just sprint and roll, leaving the defender scrambling to commit to him. That left Conley all the time in the world to nail a 3, which he’s been doing all season long at a scorching 40 percent clip.
And then there’s Mitchell. The Jazz’s All-Star had a rough shooting night with a 4-16 clip. In previous seasons, a rusty Mitchell would mean that he would try to shoot himself out of the game and harm his team even further. But this version of Mitchell continues to evolve and find ways to play winning basketball beyond scoring. He dished a team-high eight assists and also hauled down 10 rebounds. Young Spida would die trying to get buckets. This Spida will find different ways to deliver for his squad.
While Mitchell continues to grow and find himself stretching the limits of his powers like Wanda Maximoff, Gobert is more like The Vision -- fully aware of his power and impact on his surroundings. The Stifle Tower continues to pile on gaudy defensive numbers, and is almost certainly a lock for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s parlayed the establishment of his defensive abilities into another All-Star appearance, and has had people whispering of him as a worthy candidate for Most Valuable Player.
Imagine that. Gobert -- a shot blocking, screen-assisting, perimeter-chasing player -- an MVP contender alongside the best and brightest scorers (James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic), facilitators (LeBron James), and inside forces (Joel Embiid, Antetokounmpo). The fact that his name is even on people’s list is a testament to his impact on the game.
Despite how well Mitchell and Gobert are playing, or how freaking good Conley has looked all season, the Jazz know that they will ultimately be judged based on how they fare in the postseason. When playoffs come, teams are going to fight through screens a bit harder and close out on the Jazz’s shooters with more intensity. There will be games where the shots would not fall the way they did on a random Tuesday game in March.
That’s okay because this is what the Jazz were built for. They may not be a superteam, but they are a classic “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” team. Six players are averaging double figures (most in the league), and one of them, Bojan Bogdanovic, missed last year’s playoffs. He and Clarkson are ready for this opportunity. So is Conley, who probably missed out on the best chance in his career to make the All-Star team.
The world can continue to doubt and bet against the Jazz. That’s fine. They’ve been chewed up, spit out, and booed off stage. But best believe they’re going to keep on keeping on, continue to stare at opponents’ faces defiantly with the slightest hint of a snarl on the side of their lips, and whisper “all right” just like Mitchell did.