Too often this season, it has been one step forward, two steps back for the Utah Jazz.
After a hard-fought win over the Houston Rockets a week ago, the Jazz were crushed by San Antonio. There’s no shame in losing badly to the Spurs — that’s the outcome most teams suffer when San Antonio comes calling. But it was Utah’s loss to the lowly Brooklyn Nets in the final game before a crucial four-game road trip that should have the Jazz faithful concerned.
Utah, which began its road trip half a game behind Houston for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and three games behind seventh-place Portland, can ill afford a lengthy losing skid. The Jazz can also ill afford to lose games they should win on their home court, where they’re 19-12 this season.
That’s because the Jazz are terrible away from Salt Lake City.
Simply put, the Jazz’s road record is abysmal. Their 9-18 record away from the confines of Vivint Smart Home Arena entering play Monday is the fifth-worst in the West, ahead of only Minnesota, New Orleans, Phoenix and the Los Angeles Lakers — none of whom are anywhere close to postseason contention. With Monday’s game against Boston followed by contests against playoff contenders Toronto and Memphis, as well as another road game against New Orleans, the Jazz need to at least tread water. An 0-4 road trip would be disastrous, particularly with a game at Golden State and a home game against Cleveland looming in the next two weeks.
TNT analyst Charles Barkley has said the Jazz have the best young talent in the NBA. While Barkley may be opinionated on many things — and some of those opinions may be a bit off-kilter — the man knows his basketball. If he says the Jazz are the most talented young team in the league, he’s probably got a point.
That young talent is going to have to find consistency if Utah is going to be playoff-bound this spring. After a seven-game winning streak, the Jazz have suddenly gone just 2-5 in their past seven games.
Gordon Hayward may be playing the best ball of his career, taking the next step toward being a bona fide star in the league. Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood have been spectacular at times. Perhaps Shelvin Mack, who’s averaged just a tick under 12 points per game in his first four appearances since being acquired from Atlanta at the trade deadline, can provide a little extra boost to the Jazz offense.
It would also help if Rudy Gobert could be more of a consistent offensive threat. Entering Monday’s game in Boston, the Frenchman had scored just 29 points in the past four games combined. Even though the Jazz beat Houston, Gobert was a relative non-factor, posting just two points, three rebounds and no blocks. His stat line in Saturday’s loss to Brooklyn was much better — 12 points, 19 rebounds and six blocks — and is more indicative of what Gobert can bring on a nightly basis.
Gobert’s inconsistency is merely a symptom of a larger problem. The Jazz simply don’t put forth the same effort night after night. As analysts Alema Harrington, Thurl Bailey and Ron Boone noted during the postgame show on Root Sports following Saturday’s loss, the Jazz appeared to take Brooklyn lightly. That’s a problem. The Jazz are not Golden State or San Antonio — teams whose C-plus effort is good enough to beat most opponents on any given night.
The Jazz aren’t good enough to give anything less than their best effort, or they’ll struggle to win games. And at this point of the season, they can’t afford too many more losses.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He is still shocked at how many Jazz fans headed for home before overtime started against Houston last week. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.