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."
For Watson, he said he's going to use "a lot of creative thinking" to be a more effective floor general.
"I have to be a better leader," he said. "Do a better job of helping my young guys progress throughout the season."
Other Jazz players have plenty of room for improvement, from Devin Harris needing to improve his decision-making and ball-distribution choices; Paul Millsap needing to release the inner-beast and find ways to overcome zones and challenging defenders; to Gordon Hayward being aggressive and confident on offense; Josh Howard and C.J. Miles working their way out of their funks; and Al Jefferson continuing to involve teammates in offensive execution even while carrying the scoring load.
And that just scratches the surface.
Dejection and frustration were clearly evident on players' faces in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, and Bell even admitted to Watson in front of reporters and the TV crew that the team does "dumb" stuff at times. Bell was concerned that the team wasn't doing details necessary to win. When tough teams like the Thunder play physical and push players out of their spots, Bell insisted that that's the time to be even more precise with cuts and execution. If done properly, that makes the Jazz's flex system so difficult to defend.
"That's what we run, so we've got to be able to run it effectively," Bell said of the Jerry Sloan-era offense. "We missed shots, but there were plenty of possessions where I think we just chose not to run it effectively, and you can't win like that."
So, who's to blame?
"I'm pointing fingers, definitely," Watson said. "But I'll point them at myself. I could be better."
Bell said he could only speak for himself.
"I don't know if one person thinks they're giving more effort than they are. I don't know," Bell said. "But I come out to play hard every game. I don't know any other way to do it, so if that's what you guys are seeing (others slacking off) then maybe there is something to it."
Harris' message was a bit mixed, not unlike the play of the point guard and the Jazz this season.
"We're kind of back to the drawing board," he admitted.
But the former All-Star also refuted the notion that the Jazz aren't giving an effort. It boils down to not putting the ball in the hoop.
"I don't know if there's lack of intensity," Harris said. "We're definitely going out there playing hard. Honestly, we're just not making shots, and defensively we got lost at times."
Corbin said the Jazz were looking forward to resting Wednesday and practicing Thursday. He even cut his players some slack because of the grueling back-to-back-to-back road trip, using the "ran out of gas" card and saying Tuesday's defensive showing wasn't indicative of the team's usual effort.
"We'll evaluate where we are," he said, "and continue to go to work to get better."
If nothing else, the Thunder didn't just give the Jazz a lopsided loss. They also gave them what could become a valuable lesson, which could come in handy Friday when Washington visits.15 comments on this story
"They jumped on us the way we were supposed to jump on New Orleans (Monday) night," Jazz center Al Jefferson said. "That showed us how good teams play. They came out, they knew we was on our third game in three nights and they attacked us."
No letdown. No overconfidence. No mercy.
"This," Corbin said, "is what good teams do."
The Jazz have the talent to be a good team. That's been shown in wins over the Sixers, the Lakers, even at Denver.
It remains to be seen, however, if they have the drive and discipline to do what it takes to be good more than every once in a while.