We’ve reached about the halfway point of the season, and I honestly feel pretty good about where we stand. We’ve had a very up and down year, and that goes hand in hand with being a young, inexperienced team. We’ve also been bit by the injury bug a little bit, too.
Of our guys that get big minutes, four have missed a bunch of games. That’s definitely been very challenging for us. We’re a young team to begin with, and we’re still learning our roles. Then when you have guys out, players are forced into other roles. Sometimes you’re asked to play a different role than you’re normally used to playing. It’s a difficult adjustment. I’ll admit it’s difficult for me to be asked to do, and I’ve been in the league six years. We’ve had to tell second-year players and rookies to make that adjustment, just as they’re learning the NBA game. That makes it even more complicated and difficult.
But through all of that, we are still competing and playing hard, and we are giving ourselves chances to win games at the end. I’m really proud of the way that we’ve battled through all of this. We have guys stepping up all over the place with their contributions. You’ve got Trevor Booker, who’s been forced to play the five a lot. I don’t know how often he’s been asked to do that in his NBA career, but he stepped right in and gave it his all, and that’s just been great to see. Everybody has played their part, and honestly, I think we’ll be a better team because of it as long as we can continue to fight through it.
For me personally, the start to this season has been a challenge because, like everybody else, I’ve been asked to take on a bigger role with guys out, particularly in terms of scoring the basketball. It’s been good for me, though.
I’ve been getting more shots on the offensive end, but I also think I’ve had more of an aggressive mindset and I’ve really been trying to assert myself. Because of that aggressive mindset, I’ve shot the ball better, and that’s why my scoring has been going up a little bit.
And I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who’s voted for me for the All-Star Game. I see all the tweets that everybody sends at me with the #NBAVote and I love the support. It’s something I’m very appreciative of.
I do feel like I’m playing pretty well right now, but I’ve been around average overall this season, with some definite room for improvement. I want to be a more consistent player, someone this team can count on night-in and night-out. I’ve had some really great games, and I’ve put together stretches of two or three great games in a row, but then I’ll have a couple sub-par or average games. The best guys in the league do it every single night, and that’s something that I need to get better at.
Part of it is that, when you’re going hot, teams see that on film and gear their defense to slow you down. So for me, it’s a matter of figuring out different ways they’re going to guard me on the defensive end, how I can get my shots, and continuing to have an aggressive mindset, whether I make my first six shots, or if I miss my first six shots. Doing those things will help me be more consistent.
I’m also playing a lot more minutes now, so I have to keep my body healthy and fresh, and my recovery on pace. Any time we have one of our main guys go out with an injury means I’ll be taking more of a load, and I need to be able to handle that load each and every night. It’s a challenge, but it’s also exciting and I feel I’m up for it.
RISE OF THE RESERVES
That said, it’s going to be good to get some of these guys back here soon, and get back to as close to full strength as we can be. We’ve had Rudy Gobert back the last few games, and that’s been great. You can see the difference in our defense when he’s out there. Rudy is obviously our defensive anchor. I think we’ve actually played more games without him than with him, which is hard to believe. So it’s been really tough having him down, and then when Derrick Favors went down as well it made things even more difficult.
We were more than excited to get Rudy back in there. Hopefully we can get Fave back relatively quickly too, so we can move forward on the season.
But I’m really proud to say guys stepped up, too. Jeff Withey has been phenomenal. He’s just done a good job of coming in, and playing hard. He’s actually a sneaky good shot blocker. I don’t think people realize how quick of a jumper he is, and on the offensive end, he’s been rolling hard and finishing around the rim. So this time has been great for Jeff’s confidence, and that’s been great for our team and will continue to help us in terms of depth going forward.
It’s going to be a little bit longer until we get Alec Burks back, but we’re managing the best we can in his absence. Everybody was extremely disappointed about him getting injured, especially because he’s such a good kid and a hard worker. Injuries are difficult for anybody to go through, but the fact that he was injured all last year and he has to go through a little bit of that again makes it that much tougher. He was a big part of our team and a big part of our success, especially being our sixth man this year. It allowed other guys to play off of him and gave us somebody to get us out of sticky situations when we needed a bucket.
We’ve had some guys step up in his place as well. Rodney Hood has been great as of late for us, and so has Trey Burke. Chris Johnson has also done a tremendous job. Chris’ play in particular is great to see because he’s a guy who has been on our team, been cut from our team and been on several different rosters. But since the beginning of training camp, he has really been vocal. Whether he’s playing or not, he’s up cheering for the team. He also comes in every day, does his work, does what he’s asked to do, doesn’t complain, and when he’s been in the game, he’s played well. I think he’s been a good example for our team of being ready when your moment comes. He’s taken advantage of the opportunity.
That’s kind of been the theme of the season for us, guys stepping up and taking on more responsibility. You tell guys every year to be ready, because something is going to happen. Whether it’s because of an injury, a trade, a suspension, whatever it is, there are 82 games and it’s a long season. Guys are going to miss games. It’s definitely been a team effort, but I’m proud of the guys that have stepped up and been ready to play.
As of late, we’ve even been pressed into starting two rookies, Trey Lyles and Raul Neto, and both of them have been playing well.
Trey has kind of come into his own, the game has kind of come to him a bit and he’s playing the game a little bit slower, which is generally what happens as you continue to play more and more NBA games. He’s starting to figure out that he belongs in this league. He’s got a lot of tools and a lot of weapons. He’s a good passer. He’s got a great feel for the game, and he’s been able to step out and hit some threes as well, so he can stretch the floor for us.
I’ve also been really impressed with and proud of Raul. Being a rookie point guard might be one of the hardest jobs in the NBA. With the competition that you have to play at that position, every single night you’re going against an elite guy. So we’re asking a lot of Raul, but he’s been starting from the beginning — after Dante Exum went down this offseason — and he has been tremendous for us. He’s more than held his own, and he keeps getting better as the season goes on.
I think that’s true of all of our guys. Grinding it out and being in these situations early in the season will definitely help us out in the future. You never know when somebody may get hurt or in foul trouble during a game. Because we’ve been in so many close games and all these guys have been playing, it will be like “we’ve been in this situation before and we’ve done this before, we can do it again.”
I say it a lot, but experience really is invaluable in the NBA. It’s been huge for us because even though we’ve won some games and lost some games, I can say definitively we’ve gotten better.
We had the overtime game against Memphis that we ended up winning, had another super close game against Houston that we ended up losing. In both situations I can say the win or loss doesn’t matter, the fact that we got better is what matters. I think we got better in both those situations and it will help us moving forward as a team and as players individually.
SUCCESS STARTS ON D
We’re a team that goes as our defense does, so when things go right for us as a team, we’re playing really well on the defensive end. We force people into tough shots, and then we can get out and run, and either get transition buckets, or get into our early offense and get our pick-and-roll offense going. Either way, it’s about getting an easy shot on the other end, whether that’s a wide-open three or a layup, a dunk or a floater from one of our many guys with strong mid-range games who can hit those open shots. So if we play well defensively and we get open shots on the offensive end, you can generally say the game went well for us, we played well, we did things the right way, and usually the score reflects that.
One recent game where that didn’t happen was Minnesota. That was a game where things went our way and we just ended up missing shots. I thought we played really well defensively, we got really good looks on the offensive end and we just missed them. We ended up losing the game because of that, and sometimes you have those nights. You come away from a game like that frustrated and disappointed with the way you shot the ball, and those ones are definitely a little tough to swallow.
But to me, it’s a lot easier to handle that than a game where we have 25 turnovers and let the other team have 50-plus points in the paint. Those are the games that bug you because you don’t know what the answer is to fix the problem. We’ve had some games like that, too.
When things go wrong for us in games like that, we usually just have a bunch of breakdowns defensively. Teams get wide-open layups or wide-open threes, and then we have to walk the ball up the court and take shots at the end of the shot clock. Those are games where we usually see ourselves fall behind double digits or the other team makes a big run on us.
All losses aren’t the same though. One of our most well played games of the season came in a loss, at home against Golden State in late November. They were still on their win streak at the time and we played them down to the wire. But I thought we played extremely well against one of the best teams, historically, the NBA has ever seen. We had a chance to win the game. If we played the way we did against them every night, we would be right there in the playoff race in the West.
Part of that, I think, was that we were playing up to the moment, the atmosphere, and the fact that they were on a winning streak of almost 20 games at that point, and we were trying to be the team to take them down. You get this adrenaline kick, and that added to our energy for that one. It’s almost easier to play up in that type of game.
I wish there was a way to channel that and bottle it up. I wish you could get everybody to play like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals every single night. That would be ideal. I think a lot of times fans kind of expect that from you, and we’re trying as hard as we can every single night. But circumstances sometimes dictate your energy level be different from game to game.
The NBA season is long, and with that comes peaks and valleys. That game against Golden State was a peak, and we’ve had several of those. We’ve hit valleys, too. All teams do.
Obviously, there are still a lot of areas where we need to improve. One is just taking care of the basketball. For whatever reason, we’ve taken a step back in that area recently, and fallen off a little bit in what we call the battle of the ball, which is the turnover margin between the two teams. So that’s an area where we can really improve.
We still want to be aggressive as a team, and when you’re aggressive you’re going to have turnovers, but we have to deal with it, keep those turnovers down and win the battle of the ball. Doing that is a matter of mental focus, as well as just being a little bit tougher with the ball and without the ball.
We have a motion offense, so a lot of guys are moving and cutting. So not only is it on the passer to be strong and tough, but it’s also on the person cutting and the receiver to do the same thing and really come to the ball. A lot of times people only see the turnover credited to the guy who committed the turnover. But everyone on the floor plays a role in that. Sometimes it’s a guy on the backside who forgot to space and sit in the corner, and is maybe a little bit too high. That alone causes the spacing to be off, and that allows the defender on that side to be able to guard two people, and then next thing you know it’s a turnover. So it’s on our whole team. I think collectively we each have to be more mentally engaged on that end.
We’re on the right track though. The experiences of the first half of this season, getting those games under our belts and giving ourselves a chance to win games, has been great for us. I’m excited to see where the next 43 games take us. We haven’t been playing near our best basketball yet. There are still a lot of games to be played and the story of this season is yet to be written. The chance remains to make it special.