SALT LAKE CITY — “New year, new me.”
This tweet sent out by Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell from Toronto, Canada on Jan. 1, shortly after counting down 2019, was originally meant to be a joke.
“I was just being funny. Everybody says the same thing every year, so I figured I’d join them,” Mitchell explained ahead of the Jazz’s game versus Toronto on Jan. 1. “I figured I would join the hysterics.”
But since Jan. 1, the Jazz have turned their season around as one of the hottest teams in the NBA with 20 games remaining.
Fresh off Saturday night’s come-from-behind 115-111 win against the top-ranked Milwaukee Bucks, the Jazz have the league’s third-best defensive rating (105.6) while riding a four-game winning streak.
Utah (36-26) currently sits in sixth place in the Western Conference standings as it faces the New Orleans Pelicans at 7 p.m. at home on Monday. The Jazz will be without Dante Exum (left ankle sprain), Raul Neto (left hamstring tightness) and Tony Bradley (right knee surgery), but Pelicans star Anthony Davis is also listed as questionable with an illness.
After starting the season 18-19, Utah is 18-7 since Jan. 1 which is tied with Portland for the fifth-most victories in the league. The Jazz also have the fourth-best net rating (5.5) throughout that span with Mitchell averaging 27.6 points per game, the NBA’s seventh-highest average. On Jan. 15, Mitchell was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time in his career after averaging 31.5 points on 48.4 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from 3-point range, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks for games played on Jan. 7-13.
Rudy Gobert has also ranked third in the league in rebounding (13.2) and fourth in blocks (2.4) during this stretch.
So what’s changed for the Jazz since the New Year?
First, the schedule has lightened. Utah played 20 of its first 33 games on the road but now holds the league’s easiest remaining strength of schedule.
Mitchell’s shot selection, less execution on defense and mental focus also crippled this team early on, especially entering this season with heightened expectations following last year’s second-round postseason run.
“I think it’s something we need to address but we all know we play better against what everyone would say are the better teams, but I think the thing around the league is that everyone’s a little better this year,” Joe Ingles said after Utah’s 108-103 win against Golden State on Dec. 19.
“Teams that weren’t so good the last few years have played together so their young cores have recruited or whatever it is, but we’ve just got to come out the same mentality, whether it’s a top team right now or the bottom team right now, if we come out with that same mentality we can beat anyone.”
But now getting up for the big games isn’t an issue as the Jazz have topped the No. 1 Western Conference team at the time in Denver on Thursday, then dusted off the Bucks at home Saturday.Comment on this story
Although this year’s run seems reminiscent of last season, where Utah won 29 of its last 35 games to finish the season, Jazz coach Quin Snyder and his players are approaching this year as an entirely different animal no matter how smoothly things seem to be going since Jan. 1.
“Last year was last year,” Snyder said ahead of the Denver game on Thursday. “So as we throw out the benchmarks from last year, we’ve been since December one of the top couple teams in the league defensively. If you throw out garbage time, I think we’re No. 1.
“We know who we need to be defensively to win.”