1. The Jazz Carry a Taste of Big Boy Basketball into the Off-season
After a year of success beyond nearly all expectation, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz had much to gain in this season finale. The next developmental stage for this young team requires the intensity and rigor of seriously contesting for the playoffs then drawing a little blood against an NBA power. That demands a different level of competition than this young team has experienced.
The Rockets gave them a taste that level by being playoff-good in dismissing Utah 117-91.
The numbers speak of domination. James Harden capped an MVP-worthy season1 with 16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, 1 steal, 1 block and 8 of 8 from the free throw line. Dwight Howard reminded the league he was once a top three player in the world, taking2 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks in only 21 minutes of play. In the first half alone, Houston accumulated 11 blocked shots and 6 steals while displaying an offensive clinic of 16 assists, 8 made threes (on 47% shooting from range), 51% shooting overall, a robust 14 free throw attempts (11 makes, 78.6%), and 18 fast break points.
But the numbers don’t tell the half of it.
The Rockets were as good as any team the Jazz saw this year. They played physically, making a young Jazz team look young and, frankly, weak.3 They preyed on openings the Jazz defense pffered, making pinpoint skip passes for three point buckets and moving the ball crisply and precisely on the defensive interior for layups, dunks, and easy floaters.
The Howard versus Gobert match up was a microcosm of the evening. Gobert’s moment came on a recovery for a vicious block after a Howard drop step to the baseline left the Frenchman literally spinning 360 degrees to get his bearings. Howard’s other six shots all went in, typically following a shoulder or elbow bludgeoning Gobert back on his heels. It wasn’t dirty; it was borderline playoff basketball. And Gobert wasn’t ready.
This game, and this season, the Jazz simply were not ready. But they were good enough to envision what it will be like to be ready, and the bruises of this beating, to bodies and egos, will remind them what they’re working to overcome next season.
2. Don’t Assume the Blowout Means a Lack of Engagement by the Jazz
It would be easy to assume a team as young, tired, and frankly battered as the Jazz4 mailed in a meaningless 82nd game of the season, especially in a 26-point defeat. But one short scene in the third quarter belies the suspicion.
The scene in question didn’t happen on the court. On the bench, Derrick Favors, who played all of nine minutes on the night, sat watching Rudy Gobert jostle with highly motivated players older and stronger than himself on the defensive end. The quiet Georgia boy wasn’t only watching but talking, specifically pointing to the court and explaining to Jack Cooley some intricacy of the defensive dynamic on the court. The focus wasn’t on palatial vacation accommodations or the rapture of a summer free of practice and interminable film sessions over a late team dinner.
It was on the team and the game and getting one player just that much more on the right page.
Trevor Booker didn’t see the court after a late injury. Ingles, Exum, and Burke all played less than 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson, Elijah Millsap, and Bryce Cotton – all players under consideration for roster spots next season – led the team in minutes.
The team wasn’t good enough to win the game, but that didn’t change the mission as stated from the beginning of the season: whatever happens, get better. Even tonight, that dedication to improve in even the smallest of ways was on display.
3. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
The last point of the last Triple Team of the season goes to Quin Snyder and his staff. They’ve earned it.
Some of the most interesting moments of the game happened audibly and off the court as the Jazz commemorated the season’s end by enhancing both radio and television broadcasts with interviews. Injured Jazz players Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks as well as team General Manager Dennis Lindsey added a touch of distraction from the on-court drubbing. Deservedly, much of the focus was on Snyder and his coaching compatriots.
A single season into his Jazz tenure,5 Snyder has established a near legendary reputation for his work ethic. Asked for his opinion on his new coaches, Gordon Hayward replied, “Relentless is a good word. I don’t think those guys sleep much. They’re going to have to take a few days to hibernate at the end of the season.” Hibernation aside, it was clear there was little joke to the comment. The impression Snyder has made on Hayward is obvious. “He’s a guy I can trust,” Hayward says of his coach.
Dennis Lindsey agrees, especially in regard to Snyder’s drive to improve his players – and the degree to which he drives himself. “We have to balance him a bit,” Lindsey admitted. He said he views that as part of his job, acting as periodic bit in the bridle of the first coaching hire of his career. He quickly added a qualifier: “Rome wasn’t build in a day.”
The message of the interview, and the night, and the season, is clear. The Jazz are building something grand and ambitious, and they need their key pieces on the construction crew for a long time into the future. Hayward, Favors, and Gobert are essential heavy lifters long-term. Trey Burke, Dante Exum, and Rodney Hood are intriguing questions on the perimeter. Alec Burks is a wild card Lindsey has long been touting as the team’s best off-season “acquisition.”6
But Quin Snyder is the foreman, and all the evidence from this season indicates the ambition of building a title contending team is not beyond him.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed not to see Gordon Hayward tonight, as I was to see Favors play only nine minutes. Surely many Jazz fans, like me, hoped for a grand finale to what has been a grand season, one more shock to the NBA system courtesy of the upstart kids in Salt Lake City. But eventually I caught on to what Quin Snyder, and Dennis Lindsey, and probably every core player on this team knew well before tip-off against the Rockets.
This was finale to nothing, just another step in a long construction process. Protecting some players so they can maximize development in the off-season was part of today’s step, as was playing other players major minutes as a means of evaluation and decision making. Game 82 leads to off-season work, and draft preparation, free agent dossiers, and any number of other behind the scenes steps all before game 1 of next season. Steps on the stairway to the top of the NBA.
Snyder has built a team day by day, and given a season’s worth of days, the results have been remarkable. Far from complete, true, but, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
But it was built.