Utah Jazz: Players examine effort after dose of humility
SALT LAKE CITY — Even when the Utah Jazz were on a hot streak earlier this season, outplaying expectations and climbing as high as No. 2 in the West, Raja Bell couldn't help but be concerned.
Sure, the standings were fun to look at and their record sparkled.
But the glitter that accompanied talk of being a playoff contender instead of a lottery team, he worried, might've been the NBA equivalent of fool's gold.
"We won some games early, but I tried to tell everybody that we had to take that with a grain of salt," Bell said after Tuesday's 111-85 loss at Oklahoma City.
"We caught a lot of teams playing without their best players — a lot of teams," he added with emphasis. "I hope that we didn't get too bigheaded and think that we're supposed to beat every team just because we're better than them. It seems like to me that we might have done that a bit."
Overconfidence can lead to lackadaisical effort and cutting corners, like not screening hard enough, getting sloppy on cuts, slacking on defensive rotations and being less mentally sharp.
And that, the Jazz have found out the hard, punch-in-the-gut way of late, can lead to getting beaten by poor teams and getting pounded by good ones.
That's especially true when teams are on the road and tired, which just happened to Utah in a confidence-draining 86-80 loss at four-win New Orleans and a season-worst 26-point defeat in Oklahoma City.
"We have to execute. We have to screen. We have to make the right basketball play," said Bell, in his 12th NBA season. "When we are not doing that, we are not good enough to beat a lot of good teams."
Or, sometimes, bad teams (see: Raptors, Knicks, Hornets).
On the other hand, Bell added, "when we do that, we are."
Another Jazz veteran noticed similar troublesome signs of slacking and focus issues, resulting in upstart Utah losing seven of nine games.
Key reserve and leader Earl Watson insisted that embarrassing losses to less-talented teams, like the Hornets, "don't just happen overnight." Watson believed that demoralizing defeat, which still stings worse than Tuesday's OKC meltdown, had been building up.
Not giving your all, he added, eventually catches up. It can grasp you 24 hours after a seemingly big win a la Memphis.
"You can't cheat (this game) with a lack of energy, lack of effort," Watson said after the New Orleans loss. "You can talk a good game, but your play defines how you really feel and what you really think and what your heart really says. It's easy to say a lot of things, but how you play defines a lot. Talking is just words."
So where does that leave the Jazz, who suddenly find themselves in a lottery spot instead of a playoff position?
"I don't know that we know who we are as a team," Bell said.
Considering the season is approaching the halfway point, that's somewhat distressing.
But even while searching for an identity, the Jazz have created one. They are a team that is both good and bad, up and down, inside and out, a mess and a masterpiece.
It's no wonder the Jazz have a 14-14 record.
Now in his 11th season, Watson believes the Jazz have to look deep within themselves and realize they're not good enough to just show up and win, and act accordingly.
"It's time for us to play with more of an edge and work harder," Watson said. "We have to work harder as the season progresses. … Whatever your talent is, you have to enhance it."
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