SALT LAKE CITY — It was a Monday.
And, for the record, the first of a three-game road trip for the Utah Jazz in Atlanta.
The energy wasn’t there.
Neither was the effort as the Jazz dropped a 104-90 game to the Hawks, who happened to be the Eastern Conference’s worst team — and still is, back on Jan. 22.
At one point, Utah even trailed by 26 points as nothing went right, falling to 19-28 on the season and nowhere near playoff contention.
“We were in a point where the season was on the line and I think everybody figured out and felt more comfortable to step up as men and say ‘this is it,’” said Jazz guard Ricky Rubio. “We had to play our best.”
The soul-searching after the sting of that defeat has certainly fueled the squad.
As the Jazz and Hawks prepare for a rematch this time around at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Vivint Arena, reflecting on their previous meeting is almost laughable. Utah (40-30) enters the contest as the fifth-ranked team in the Western Conference, with nine consecutive wins under its belt.
Since the Atlanta loss, the Jazz have completely turned their season around with a healthier lineup and more efficient defense to go 21-2. Utah currently has the league’s second-best defensive rating (101.8), but have logged a league-best 94.5 defensive rating during the hot streak.
“I take a lot of pride in it, especially the way the NBA is going now with small ball,” Jazz forward Derrick Favors said of the team’s defensive effort. “I try to take pride in going one-on-one or protecting the paint and just the little things to help us win.”
Atlanta (20-50) has lost six consecutive games, but the Jazz aren’t taking them lightly. That last loss to Atlanta in Philips Arena certainly proved that anything can happen.
Utah connected on just 43.4 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from 3, as Dennis Schroder lit them up for 20 points. Don’t look for that to happen again, though, as the guys are prepared.
“The way I would reflect on it is they’re an NBA team that’s almost in every game,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “Before we played them last time, they had lost some close games and they were playing well and we didn’t play well and we lost so we expect the same effort from them.
“(Mike Budenholzer’s) a great coach, they’re going to move the ball, they’re going to play defense and we’ve got to be ready to go and we’ve got to play well,” he added.
BACK IN THE GROOVE: With two games under his belt, Jazz guard Dante Exum returned to practice with his teammates Monday. After missing most of the season with a left shoulder injury, he’s averaging 6.0 points, 2.0 assists and 2.0 rebounds in 13.5 minutes. Jazz coach Quin Snyder says the training wheels are now off for the third-year guard.
“Dante is integrated so it’s thinking about the team and he’s part of the team so there’s nothing we’re doing special for him,” Snyder said. “What’s special for him and all our guys is just to stay sharp and keep getting better.”