The All-Star break is over, and all of us here in Utah were really excited to get back to basketball, and finish what we started this season.
I did take a nice little break over All-Star weekend, and headed out to San Diego with my wife Robyn and my daughter Bernadette for some warm weather and a few days of fun in the sun. It’s hard to beat 78 degrees in the middle of winter, and it was nice to get a brief reprieve from the grind that is the NBA season. I did get a chance to watch some of the All-Star festivities, including the Rising Stars game, and was really proud of our three guys representing the Jazz. But for the most part, we just sat back and relaxed for a few days. I felt like I hadn’t seen the sun in a while, so it was good to get some Vitamin D, and get off my feet for a couple days.
Getting the chance to spend that time with Robyn and Bernadette in San Diego was definitely priceless. During the season, I feel like I’m gone all the time, and even when I am home, I usually have practice or an appearance. The time with them is limited.
Bernadette already seems like she’s growing up too fast. Every time I come back from a road trip, she’s bigger and doing something that I’d never seen her do before. She has two teeth right now, and it looks like they’re coming in super crooked, so an orthodontist is likely in her future down the road.
She’s doing this thing lately where she doesn’t like her baby food anymore. I’m going to blame this on her mom because she’s been giving Bernie food every now and then. So now, any time we’re eating, she starts to grunt because she wants some of our food. So we give her some. If you don’t give her enough, she grunts some more. It kind of takes the fun out of eating a little bit. She really likes whipped cream, too. Robyn gave her some, and I’m not even sure if she’s supposed to have that, but she loves it.
She’s still putting everything she finds in her mouth, but she has these teeth now, so she’s starting to bite and chew some things. If she gets a piece of paper, she’ll definitely chew that up. We have to be a little more careful with what she’s grabbing and putting in her mouth, because she’s to the point where she’s a little bit older and stronger and can grab some things that she shouldn’t.
But I’m just enjoying life with her. It’s a little sad to miss out on some of the firsts, but it’s also cool to see that she is getting older, and forming more of a personality every day.
I give her a hard time about things like the food, but I really give Robyn a ton of credit. It’s still so impressive to me to see her grow as an individual, as a wife and as a mother. I know it’s very difficult for her during the season, I’m sure all wives of basketball players, and all pro athletes, know that during the season is just a difficult time. It can be very stressful. But I’m lucky because Robyn has handled it really well, and I’m so very grateful to have her in my life.
BACK TO THE GRIND
I got back to Utah on Monday, and went right to the gym to get some work in with my guys from St. Vincent’s Sports Performance, Jason Smeathers and Rob Blackwell.
That got me ready for what’s going to be required to finish this season strong.
The last 8-2 stretch before the All-Star break was really good for our confidence, especially with the year we’ve been having. It’s just been an up and down year. We’ve won some big games, but we’ve lost some games we should’ve won, too. We’ve had a lot of important players miss time due to injuries. But we’re feeling good now, and for us to end the first half on a stretch like that gave us some confidence going into the second half. Last night’s loss in Washington was a bit of a setback, but that’s not a deterrent to what we’re trying to accomplish on the larger scale as we close out this season.
It’s obviously been really important for us to get our starting big men, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, back in the last month. Those guys are both defensive anchors for us, and it’s good to have them out there. But as much as having them back adds to our starting five, their absence also added to the depth of our team. The other guys who filled in really stepped up and played well. They gained some valuable experience, and made our bench and our team better.
We’ve shown a lot of growth as a team this year. One thing I’ve noticed is that we’re learning how to win games in all kinds of different ways. We’ve had blowouts, solid double-digit wins, close games we led most of, close games where we had to come back, even a couple buzzer beaters. There are all kinds of scenarios that you find yourself in during the course of the NBA season because of the nature of the schedule, fatigue and injuries. There just aren’t many games where you go into the game and your entire team is 100 percent, everybody is prepared, and strong mentally and physically. There is always going to be something that is going on. That’s why learning how to win games in different situations is huge, and why experience is such a big deal in the NBA.
A lot of the criticism of Derrick and me in the past has been related to closing out games and finding ways to win. We’ve dropped a lot of close games. But we’re starting to figure it out a little bit. I’ve written about it before, but it’s definitely a process to learn how to win basketball games. That’s especially true in the NBA, where experience is so important, because you have guys with 10-plus years of experience going against our team, one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in the league. So it’s huge for us to figure out how to win those ball games and then see it pay off.
We played a lot of great games over that closing stretch, but one that really stands out to me is the win over the Bulls in Utah. Overtime games had been a major hurdle for us. A couple weeks earlier on our trip out East, we’d taken games to OT in Charlotte and New York, but couldn’t finish either of them.
If we’d lost that game in Chicago, it probably would have been pretty devastating for us mentally because of the other losses before it. So for us to pull that game out and get a win really started to build that momentum that we had been establishing at the start of that homestand. It was a really crucial confidence builder. It’s also a win over a good Bulls team that we can look back on throughout the season, and say, “This is what we do well. Let’s go out there and do that again.”
We’ll also look to that game in Dallas, which was a huge moment for the Jazz franchise, especially for me and Derrick Favors. It was the first time we’ve won in Dallas. The Mavs have been a really good team our whole careers. We both came into the NBA the year they won the championship, and they’ve been consistently good as long as we’ve been in the league. They’re kind of a measuring stick for teams in the West. I think for us, that made it a moment where we felt like we kind of turned the corner a little bit.
One reason the game stood out to me personally is that I have family in Dallas, and they were always giving me a hard time about not being able to beat the Mavericks in Dallas. So it was fun to be able to do that, and do it the way we did it, in front of my family.
It felt great to be the one who hit that shot, too. I had struggled all night, but I told one of our assistant coaches when we came in after calling the timeout that I was going to hit the shot. I had a lot of confidence going in shooting it. At that point and time, you just throw out all the other shots you took in the game. They don’t really matter. In that moment, it’s just about shooting the shot.
But first you have to get the opportunity. Though I was confident, I didn’t really know what to expect from the Mavericks defensively. Dallas is a really well-coached team, so I didn’t know if they were going to switch or trap or what.
The play was drawn up with options for Rodney and for me. Depending on how they guarded it, one of us was going to end up popping out to go and get the ball. What happened actually ended up being kind of a broken play, with guys running and chasing the ball, but I went right to the inbounds and just got the ball. Once I had it, I knew that I could make a play and get a shot off. Once I saw that they switched and I had Pachulia on me, I knew that I was going to go into the stepback, because I had the quickness advantage on him. If I tried to go around him, he might be a little off balance, and I could get some separation with the stepback. That’s a shot that I’ve worked on thousands of times, and a shot that I’m definitely comfortable shooting, and this one felt good from the moment it left my hand.
The biggest difference was that this was on the road. When you’re at home, the crowd is obviously behind you, they want you to shoot and make that shot. It’s the opposite on the road. The celebration is a little different too. At home when you make it, it kind of feels like you’re celebrating with 20,000 people. In this case it was just me and my teammates in a small group.
But that’s a really cool feeling too. I’ve always said I like playing on the road more than playing at home because I like silencing the crowd. I was a big Reggie Miller fan growing up, and I know he loved to do that as well. It’s a really good feeling when the crowd goes quiet , and everyone is kind of shocked and stunned, and it’s just kind of you and your teammates celebrating. There’s definitely something about silencing a crowd that I love.
LEARNING TO LEAD
Having different experiences is important to your evolution as a player, and I got firsthand knowledge of that while D-Fave was out. The two of us have shared the load as the team’s primary scorers for some time now. But with him out, I knew I’d have to raise my game.
During that time, I had to be “the guy” for our team, and that’s a role that I’m continually becoming more and more comfortable in. Having the trust of my teammates and my coach really helps me out there mentally. That’s a big part of the game, the mental aspect, and having the trust of your teammates and your coach goes a long way, especially the way that Coach Snyder has backed me.
From day one, Coach Snyder and I have had a really good relationship. I really respect him as a coach, and his passion for the game and his competitiveness. Our relationship has gotten to the point where we hit each other with text messages and phone calls, or we’ll meet when we’re on a road trip and talk about basketball things, life things, pretty much anything. He’s just a guy that I can pick up the phone and call, and talk to about anything. Our relationship has grown to that level where we almost have sort of a friendship as well as the player-coach relationship.
He definitely has a lot of faith in me as a leader of the team on and off the court. He’ll call me over in the middle of the game, and ask me what I’m seeing so we can try to figure out some in-game adjustments. It helps me, too, because I can look over at him and kind of relay messages to the team, whether that’s plays or matchups defensively.
Those in-game adjustments are some of the hardest changes for a team to make because you can’t always talk about everything in timeouts or wait until halftime. Some adjustments need to be made immediately. So for him to be able to look at me and get the messages across is big for us as a team. I think every team needs a guy the coach can kind of talk to like that, because he’s seeing a lot of things, but he can’t see everything. There’s certain things that players see differently, and that dialogue goes a long way toward helping us create a solid game plan.
Being in that role for Coach Snyder and with the guys on this team has definitely turned me into a more vocal leader in the last couple years. That’s something that I’ve kind of grown into naturally. This is my sixth year in the league, all with this team. I’ve put in the work to get better and better as a player, so I think naturally younger guys kind of look to me and to Derrick Favors, and some of the other guys who have been around here for a while.
That’s a relatively new thing for me to experience. I only spent two years at Butler and we already had some guys there that were more vocal. I’ve always been a guy that’s led by example. The vocal leadership is definitely something that’s a little newer. But because I want to win so badly, I think there’s a natural progression there toward being that type of leader. As I get older and have more experience in this league, it will just happen more and more and become second nature. And I think it’s better that way, because it’s organic, not forced.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
I’m really proud of the way I’ve played over the last several games, but I’m just as proud of what I’ve seen from some of my teammates. They’ve elevated their play, and helped our team rise in the process.
Rodney Hood has really stepped up and pushed his game to another level. He’s been scoring the basketball at an outstanding clip and playing consistently well. Ever since he had an off game in Minnesota back at the end of December, it seems like Rodney hasn’t had an off game since, and he’s won games for us over that stretch, quite frankly.
For him to be able to do that in just his second year in the league has been really impressive. He has this natural feel for the game and kind of knows when to turn it up another level. He has this calmness about him and he plays with a bunch of poise. He’s also just a talented player with a lot of skill, a natural scorer who uses his physical advantages to get whatever shot he needs to take in a given situation. He uses his body extremely well. He’s a big guard, and he kind of knows how to get his shot off against multiple different defenders. If the defender is smaller, he has a natural post game and uses his body and can fade away with his height. If a defender is a slower guy, he’ll step out, get a running start and go past him to the basket.
He’s also been knocking down the three-ball, which has really been opening up a lot of different things for him. If you can knock down a three-point shot, they have to respect you, and that means guys are running at you and trying to run you off the three-point line. That allows you to utilize shot fakes or drive on the catch. Then you can get into your mid-range game or your post game, and use all the other things that you have at your disposal.
His evolution as a playmaker for this team has been really key for me, because he’s become another guy on the wing that can handle the ball and make plays. Teams have to respect him as a player and more importantly as a shooter, so they can’t just camp out in the lane. I’ve definitely seen that open things up for me as well.
It’s been huge for us to have another weapon like that, and he hit a big-time three in the Dallas game to tie the game. That’s really valuable. Before Rodney emerged as another guy who could take those shots for us, we’d have trouble even getting the ball inbounded in those situations. It was too easy for teams to switch and send two guys at me to keep the ball out of my hands. For us to have another guy who can step up and shoot that shot, it’s really key.
I also think Raul Neto has been playing really well. It’s a tough task to ask anybody to be a starting point guard in the Western Conference, let alone a rookie. But I think he’s improved throughout the season and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. He plays really hard on defense and he gives us some more options on offense. He’s able to penetrate and knock down some shots for us, with floaters and other creative off balance shots — he shoots a lot of his shots off one foot. He’s also been knocking down some threes for us.
He’s also another guy who can handle the ball, bring it up and deal with pressure. That’s been really helpful to me, to have a couple more guys who can do that.
Having Favors back has been great on both sides of the floor because not only is he one of our anchors on defense, he’s also an elite post scorer on offense. He’s a guy that we’ve leaned on in the past, as another guy that can score the basketball and who we can go to. So it’s been really good to have him back and get him back up to speed. It gives us another weapon and make it so defenses can’t just lock in on defending our wing players.
But the key to our run before the All-Star break was once again our defense.
We’ve been playing really well on that end for a while now and executing our game plans extremely well, for the most part. Because of that, whether or not we’re shooting the ball well or playing well on the offensive end, we are staying in games and giving ourselves a chance at the end. We’ve been able to win some of these close games as a result of that.
Defense is our calling card and it’s really valuable for us as far as scoring off our defense and pushing the ball up so we don’t have to attack a half court defense that’s up. Being a young team, we’re still learning how to attack the half-court set defenses that we see. We can get some things in transition, get some mismatches and play off our early offense. I think our defense has allowed us to do a lot of that as this season has gone on.
WRITING THE NEXT CHAPTER
The streak that we had and the way that we won some of those games in the last 10 gave us a big boost of confidence going into the All-Star break and we expect to carry that same confidence through the second half.
But at the end of the day, we have to realize that we haven’t accomplished anything yet. We haven’t made the playoffs, and only a couple of us have even played in a playoff series before. So we have to make sure that we stay hungry. It was a good seven-game winning streak that we went on but other teams have done that and more.
I honestly haven’t looked at the standings too much. I know that we’re neck-and-neck with a few teams and that’s mostly because of questions I get from the media and some of my buddies telling me. But I’ve always been a guy who is just worried about each game individually. At the end of the day, if you take care of your business, the standings and the records will take care of themselves.
That’s how I’ve always looked at it as a player, dating back to my time at Butler. It’s something Coach Stevens always preached about. We were never worried about our standings or our ranking or anything like that. We were worried about getting better each day, as a team and as individuals. Then, come March, it was go time and as long as you did enough to get into the tournament, none of the records or standings mattered anyway.
So as long as we stay hungry and realize that we’ve still got a long way to go, we should be able to put ourselves in good position. We need to make sure that we continue to execute defensively. For me, as a leader, that means to make sure that we maintain focus and execute our game plan for each game like it’s a playoff game, because that’s how close this race for the playoffs is going to be. It’s going to come down to a couple games, so we have to make sure we don’t overlook any team. It’s cliche, but we really do need to just take it a game at a time and play our best each time we take the court.
Our goal is to make the playoffs and I think that we’re a good enough team to do that. We have to maintain focus and continue to play the right way, especially on the defensive end. We have to execute our game plan because there’s still a possibility we don’t make the playoffs and that would be all on us. We should strive to make the playoffs and that’s one of our goals—but the way that we’ll do that is just by playing each game individually and taking it one game at a time.
To our fans in Jazz Nation, thank you for all the encouragement so far. Your support brings us the energy that we need. We’re going to need more of that from you guys down the stretch, to help push us through to reach our goals and close out this second half of the season strong.