SALT LAKE CITY — For all the adjusting, tweaking and hocus-pocus Quin Snyder has used to keep his team going, reality is still harsh. He knows that. The Jazz won six straight games. But then came Oklahoma City, a monster waiting to break out. That was a six-point loss on Tuesday.
By Thursday, the reality window had closed a bit more: Houston 112, Utah 101.
The heavy lifting has just begun. Here come the heavyweights.
If Snyder gets out of December with a respectable record, he should be Coach of the Month. Trouble is, whom on that list is he supposed to beat? Thursday's game against the Rockets was just the start. Coming up shortly is a list of likely playoff-bound teams that will test even the cerebral Snyder’s abilities. Opponents include Oklahoma City, Houston, Milwaukee, Boston, San Antonio, Denver, Golden State, Cleveland and New Orleans — all playoff-bound as of this date.
“I don’t really like looking at our schedule that much,” Snyder said.
The recent win streak could be a vague memory by the time the calendar turns to 2018.
If the Jazz were looking to gauge their speed after one-third of the season, there could hardly be a better opponent than Houston. They actually have a speck of potential to bother the Rockets. For instance, there’s Joe Ingles, who is as bothersome as a mosquito. It took only six minutes to draw James Harden into a technical.
The Jazz trailed just 25-20 after the first quarter, using 10 players, which is the norm for this team. The Jazz still trailed by five at the half to a team that has now won 14 of its last 15.
Then they trailed by 20 and people lost count.
Then they cut it to 13, but the clock was rolling.
Oddly enough, the defeat wasn’t embarrassing. As usual, the Jazz had only a partial complement, with Rodney Hood, Dante Exum and Joe Johnson out.
For several games prior to Tuesday’s loss at Oklahoma City, the Jazz were playing model basketball. They shared like children. Their passing was sharp, their cuts precise, their shot selection astute. So naturally on Thursday they hoped to rebound from the OKC loss by turning in a brilliant performance against the first-place Rockets. That didn’t happen.
Regardless, the anticipated reality check is already here. That schedule? Snyder is going to have to think about it. The Jazz have 14 games in the next month against playoff-bound teams, counting the unusually slow-starting Thunder. What can the Jazz do to combat the onslaught?
Out-execute them, theoretically.
Precision sometimes tops raw talent.
If you don’t have any Kevin Durants or Russell Westbrooks to take over games, you form a committee. That’s what the Jazz are. But unlike congressional committees, these people can’t stall for months. The Jazz have revamped who they are a half dozen times since the season started, thanks to injuries.
“We thought we were one team, with Dante (Exum), and then you got Joe Johnson and Rudy (Gobert) and so we’ve had to remake ourselves a few times within a short amount of time,” Snyder said.
But by quick passing, solid screening and precise cutting they’re able to get enough open shots to win games they shouldn’t.
Maybe this is where the fairy tale ends. Utah’s aspirations were never on better display than Monday’s 47-point win over Washington. Fast breaks, transitions and ordinary play setups all worked to perfection. When they weren’t pushing for transition shots, they were finding open men, both in close and on the perimeter, meeting with little or no opposition. That sort of basketball leads to this sort of score: Utah 116, Washington 69.
But not playing your finest against great teams leads to what happened on Thursday. Late in the game, the Rockets’ Ryan Anderson caught Mitchell with an elbow to the face.
That’s how the evening went for the Jazz in general. But it has happened to a lot of other teams.
For their part, the Jazz just need to stay on task, i.e. shoot for the playoffs, not the stars. Snyder believes in crowdsourcing on a grand level. Give ‘em Joe Ingles’ lazy, looping set shots from afar, then pound ‘em low with Derrick Favors jump-hooks and Rudy Gobert’s put-backs and polish them off with Donovan Mitchell doing whatever he pleases.
And always find the easy shots.
Snyder is an introspective and brainy coach. That the Jazz came into Thursday’s game in the No. 7 spot in the standings is due to him. They don’t have superstars to win championships. But they do have a coach who knows everything there is about squeezing blood from a turnip. That’s a good trait to have in a talent-heavy NBA.