We’re in the midst of an important year here with the Utah Jazz, and as we get ready to begin the second month of the season, we’re not necessarily where we thought that we would be, and not where I thought we would be.
We’ve let a couple of games slip so far, and obviously, that bothers you. But it’s important not to get caught up in the moment. I think ultimately we’ve gotten better each game, and that’s a better gauge, in my opinion, of whether we’ve been successful so far. If we can say we’ve continued to get better as the season goes on, then we’ll be playing our best basketball towards the end of the year.
So at the end of the day, I can say I’m pretty happy with where we are through 13 games. Honestly, we’re doing pretty well for the schedule we’ve had. Last night was just our fourth home game all season, so we’ve had a bunch of games on the road, and they’ve been mostly against really good teams. Each game has been pretty close, aside from the Orlando game and last night’s game. Most of our other games have been games where we went down to the wire, had opportunities to win, and pulled it out or fell just a little bit short. The Atlanta win was huge for us, and beating a very good Toronto team was a big win for us too.
For the most part, we have played well enough defensively to give ourselves a chance at the ends of games. However, the last five games we have had some slippage and last night our slippage was put on full display. We have to get back to playing the focused, defensive minded basketball we are capable of playing. We are not good enough yet individually, or collectively, to just turn it on whenever we want. We need to be better.
We’re still learning how to win games, and that’s a big thing. The difference between winning and losing in the NBA is so small; we’re trying to figure it out as we go along. In Atlanta, they definitely took us out of what we wanted to do on offense, and forced us into a bunch of turnovers. Then in the second half, we adjusted and ended up getting a win. That was a big moment for us as a team. We can use games like that to learn, improve and get better. Hopefully, we can build on those experiences for those games in the future when we’re in similar situations and need to draw from those moments.
The best thing about how we’ve started the season is that we’re doing a lot of the same things we were doing well at the end of last year. We just have to build on that. With the exception of last night, our ability to continue to defend the way that we did down the stretch last year has been a really good sign.
We were really, very good defensively at the end of last year, and I didn’t know if we would have that right away at the outset of this season. The expectation was that we would, but at the same time, I didn’t know if we would have everything all together at the beginning. For the most part, we have. We’re ranked near the top of the league, statistically speaking, as a defense, and that’s been awesome to see. Playing defense that well is a good way to make sure we’re always in games, giving ourselves an opportunity to win, even when we haven’t played extremely well.
For us, a lot of the struggle out of the gate has come on the offensive end. It’’s been up and down. There have been games where we’ve passed the ball really well, gotten good looks and been able to knock them down. Then there have been other games where we’ve kind of been taken out of what we like to do. We’ve been sped up a little bit, turned the ball over too many times, and put a lot of pressure on our defense.
I believe the offense will continue to improve as the season goes on, as we start to get more and more of a rhythm and figure out what we do best as a team. But it’s a work in progress right now. Eventually, I think guys will start to get more and more comfortable and we’ll start to knock down some more shots.
We haven’t really had a game where everything clicked yet. We played really well in Philadelphia, but that’s kind of an outlier, and doesn’t really say anything about us. The games against Atlanta and Toronto last week were the closest we’ve been. Even so, they were not very pretty games —two games where we turned the ball over a bunch and it was hard to execute. We didn’t get many good looks. But down the stretch we ended up executing, especially defensively, got the stops when we needed to, got good shots when we needed them as well, and we ended up getting the wins.
No matter what, a win is a win. And I think you always take a win, regardless of if it was pretty or if it was ugly. If somebody misses a last second shot, and you walk away with a win like we did in Atlanta, you always take that win.
Those games are huge games, confidence-boosters for us, and games that we can build on moving forward. Games that come down to the last five minutes, those are the games that playoff teams find a way to win. They execute in crunch time. They make the plays when they need to make the plays. And those are the teams that end up playing at the end of the year. We are learning to make those plays. We are experiencing both victory and defeat in those situations, and that’s ultimately going to help us grow as a team.
No matter what, if it’s a win or a loss, you always try to learn from it as well. You learn from it when you did well. You learn from the things that you didn’t do well. Then you continually try to build on those successes, and those failures, and mistakes, and try to improve the next game. So by the end of the year you’re really kind of rolling and playing your best basketball. We’ve learned a lot already in these first 13 games.
So I think we’ll be all right, especially with the experience that we’ve gained in all the close games we’ve played. We’ve already lost a couple of them and we’ve won a few of those close games, too. So I think it will be a work in progress. But right now, I would say it’s just so-so, and that’s why our record stands at 6-7. If our offense had been clicking, we would have won some more games and maybe we would be 8-5 or 9-4, something like that.
PLENTY TO BUILD UPON
Though the results haven’t gone the way we have wanted them to at times early in this season, I think there a lot to be excited about with this Jazz team. For me, it starts with Derrick Favors, who has had a tremendous start to the season. He’s really improved his game offensively and given us an outlet on that end, whether it’s knocking down jump shots from the free throw line and above, or going down into the post. He’s been really good for us offensively.
Also on that end, Alec Burks and Rodney Hood both have been a tremendous force at different moments throughout the season. The presence of those two guys gives us more options to handle the ball and make plays.
But the guy who has impressed me the most has been Trey Burke. It’s a difficult situation to be asked to come off the bench after being a starter, which is what happened with him, and he’s extremely capable of starting for us. But I think he has really embraced his role and he’s been huge for us coming off the bench. He’s been the reason why we’ve won some games, with his energy and his scoring in that role. For him to be so committed to the team aspect that he’s embraced that, and can come off the bench, still play well and honestly give us a big lift, has been really impressive to me. It says a lot about who Trey Burke is.
On the other side, I think everybody has done a great job defensively for us. Faves has been really good there, but Rudy Gobert is definitely the centerpiece for us and our anchor defensively. He just makes the other team’s life difficult any time they come to the lane. If he’s not blocking a shot, he’s altering it. That allows our wings and guards to be more aggressive, to get in passing lanes and pressure a little bit, because you know that he’s got our back. He’s been tremendous.
Personally for me, this season hasn’t exactly started the way I expected either.
Obviously, my shot hasn’t been what or where I want it to be. In the first couple of games, it was a matter of just getting into a rhythm and finding the shots that I’m going to get based on the way teams play us defensively. We have a different team this year than we did last year. We have guys that can make plays, guys that can make shots, and early on, I found myself still trying to figure out where I was going to get my shots. It’s just a matter of trying to find a rhythm.
That has steadily improved and though it’s still not where I want to be, I’ll keep working at it. I get in the gym whenever I can to put up shots. Just getting up reps constantly and consistently is important. I also think maintaining mental focus is vital, blocking out doubt and continuing to have confidence in your game. I’ll continue to watch film and work, and I think over the course of the year, it will improve and my shooting percentage will get back up to where it was last year. I just have to trust the work that I did over the summer and keep at it. You’re not always going to shoot 12 for 14, or 10 for 13. You’re going to have some off nights, so mentally, I have to continue to be strong and tough, and trust the work that I’ve put in.
The last several games have been better. You’re definitely encouraged when you see the ball go in the hoop more. The Toronto game was a big game for me personally because I hit some shots there in the second half and the fourth quarter that were big shots. I hadn’t done that earlier in the year. I had some games where I started off well and had some double-digit point outputs in the first half, and then kind of tapered off in the second half. So to see the ball go through the hoop is a confidence booster, and it’s definitely a good sign. Hopefully, I can continue to make some shots in the second half and help us close out games.
I also pride myself on being somebody who affects the game in more than just one way. So if I’m not scoring, I try to make sure that my defense is really strong and I can rebound and be a play-maker for my teammates. For the most part, even when I’m not having a good game offensively, I’m locked in defensively, helping give us a chance there at the end. So for me, it’s not always just about scoring. It’s about the whole game and all the other aspects of it.
A good defensive game for me means I’m active in the passing lanes and engaged, and if I’m doing that, I also tend to have a better game offensively. So it all starts defensively for me, and as a player, I think I’ve gotten better each and every year in that regard. This is also my second year in Coach Snyder’s system defensively and our second as a team, so there’s a lot more trust in my teammates and in the system. We’re all starting to really gel together as a team defensively, and again, that’s what keeps us in games. So it’s been going well from that standpoint this season.
WILD WILD WEST, NOTHING EASY IN THE EAST
The Western Conference hasn’t really played out the way a lot of people, myself included, thought it would early in this season, and that’s made things interesting.
One part of that which has really surprised me is New Orleans. I don’t think very many expected them to have the record that they have right now, one sixth of the way into the season. Houston too, I don’t think very many people expected that. But it’s definitely too early to make anything of it. We’re really still just at the beginning of this, and it will definitely be an up-and-down season. It always is. Teams are going to go through streaks when they’re hot, and put together a string of seven or eight games in a row. They’ll also go through skids where they start to play low. That’s the nature of the beast.
For us, the opportunity lies in each and every game that we play. It’s important for us to take it one game at a time and we have to take advantage of the games that we should win, and we feel like we should win, because the league is going to be so close and competitive, especially out in the West. Houston is going to figure it out at some point in time and turn it around, and I’m sure New Orleans will do the same thing. So that just puts even more pressure on us to make sure that we take advantage of the games that we should win.
We’ve played a lot of games against the Eastern Conference so far and it’s not easy out there either. There are a lot of teams over in the East that are better than advertised.
Of the teams that we’ve played in the East, Miami was one of the ones that really impressed me. They were really solid, and when we played they didn’t even have Dwyane Wade, who remains one of their best players. But they were really good defensively, and they were a lot like us with physicality and defensive-first focus, along with some strong bench play that really helped them get the win.
Then of course you have Cleveland. We knew they were an elite team, but their ability to figure out ways to win was impressive. LeBron seemed almost like he was in cruise control throughout the first three quarters. We kind of kept him contained and kept him from doing too much, and then in the fourth he just turned it on, they picked it up a level, and they ended up winning the game. I thought that we had a really good chance to win that game. We missed some shots, and maybe if we had hit those it would have been different. But I was just impressed that they were able to turn it up a notch and get the win.
One thing we’ve learned from playing all those Eastern Conference teams is how to execute better in crunch time. A lot of the games we played out East went down to the wire. We started there with our first game in Detroit, and lost on a last second shot. But then we played extremely well in the second half against Indiana. We had our opportunities in Cleveland, had our opportunities in Miami and came up short. We didn’t play well in Orlando, but we back bounced back and played well against Atlanta and walked away with a victory there to end the trip.
So I think just learning how to play in crunch time when we went East was big and will be an important experience for us as we continue to play more East teams, and more West teams. It definitely doesn’t get any easier, so it will be fun; it will be challenging, but it’s definitely going to be a long season.
HAPPY TO BE HOME
I’ve never been on the road this much at the beginning of the year before, so that has definitely been a change of pace. We went back to Indiana — where I stayed all summer and where my wife had our baby — in our first three games, and I don’t normally do that. Then we made another trip East a couple weeks ago for Miami and Orlando, which is a trip we usually take around Christmas. So it’s been different.
But we’re just about done living out of our suitcases for a while. After this quick trip to Los Angeles, we’ll get to spend a ton of time at home. Starting this Saturday, I think we play like 14 of our next 19 games at home. So I’m extremely excited to be back in Salt Lake for an extended period. We have the best fans in the NBA. They really do help us out in crunch time games, and give us a huge energy lift.
Those are games that we will have an edge, and we need to take advantage of the time we have at home, getting extra treatments, getting extra shots up, staying in our own beds. We definitely need to make the most of that time and try to win those games. I’m looking forward to it.
I know Robyn is looking forward to having me home for most of the next month or so.
It’s been a tough month for her with me being on the road so much. It’s tough being a new mom as it is, but especially so in this situation. She has kind of almost been like a single mom, because we’ve been gone all the time. But she’s done such a great job and I have a huge amount of respect for her and what she does. I love her for that. And I’m happy I’ll be getting at least a little more time at home with her and Bernadette. Those are two huge parts of my life.
Bernadette is getting bigger each and every day. She is really starting to get her own personality and she is super smiley, which is really fun. It’s always cool to come home from practice, or a game, or whatever it may be. She looks at me and she gives me this big smile like, “I know who you are!” That’s a warm feeling, and it kind of puts things in perspective for me as a person. It’s been great to just be a father and have her there for me after home games too. That’s a fun new experience for me.
This Thursday is also going to be Bernie’s first Thanksgiving. I’ve mentioned multiple times to Robyn that Thanksgiving is coming up, wondering when she is going to learn how to cook Thanksgiving dinner because we’ve got to start our own traditions. She keeps dodging the question, so right now I don’t know what we’re going to do for Thanksgiving. I guess we’ll just figure it out on the fly. Maybe we’ll be eating Chinese on Thanksgiving, who knows! But regardless of what we eat, I’m looking forward to being able to start making our own traditions as a family this first holiday season with Bernadette. Who knows what they’ll be. But we have our own little family now. I’m excited for what lies ahead.