I hope everyone enjoyed a happy holiday season, and is ready for a great new year.
It was exciting to be home for Christmas Day, with it falling before a road trip this season, instead of during one as it often does. It was a blessing to be able to spend that time with my family. Robyn and the girls are doing great.
Bernadette was a little more aware of what was going on this year. I still don’t think she understood the whole gifts thing or anything like that, but she had a fun time opening up the presents, and tearing through the wrapping paper, and all that. Charlotte is still so young, but she’s getting bigger and bigger and has been rolling over. Before we know it, she’s going to be standing up and walking around.
It’s always difficult during the season to spend much time with the family because I’m gone a lot, but right before the holidays we had a nice long homestand, and that was just awesome. I got to do what I love—play basketball in front of the home crowd—and then after the game, I get a chance to go home and spend time with my family. You can’t really beat that.
We just finished one of our longest road trips of the season and that’s a different kind of good because it allowed us to bond and come together a little bit more as a group. We saw that during our trip in November, and the same thing happened on this trip.
Those experiences all serve to make us a stronger team.
We’ve already dealt with so many injuries this year, and it’s been rare to have all five of our starters out there at the same time. The fact that we’ve been able to succeed in spite of that speaks to the depth that we have on the team. It speaks to the coaching staff, and the work that they’ve put in every game to get us ready to play, to put us in positions to be successful. It also it speaks to the summer workouts that guys had just making sure, to a man, that we were getting better in the offseason and each working on our individual game.
All those things contribute to everyone on our bench being ready to step up and be successful. It’s a long NBA season, and guys are going to go down at some point. You don’t usually know when or how many guys you’ll lose, or even for how long. But you know it happens. So guys have to be ready to play and we have been.
It’s a confidence booster as well. Because we know we haven’t really been at full strength yet and we’re still able to play well, win games and beat good teams. That’s definitely in the back of all of our minds, that we still have guys that aren’t fully healthy yet.
Obviously, I’ve dealt with some injury issues of my own this year. I’m happy the finger injury I suffered before this season didn’t keep me down for too long because I was anxious to get out there with the team. I was able to avoid surgery and be out there on the court for the long haul of the season. That’s the most important thing. I’m still playing through and working through it, but I wanted to make sure that when I came back, I wasn’t thinking about it, nursing it or playing any differently because of it.
I’m really proud of the start I’ve had to this season. I put in a lot of hard work and a lot of preparation went into playing at this level. I’ve written about it before, but just the amount of work that I put in, to have the season that I’m having, it’s great to see it pay off. I’ve spent countless hours in the gym, as well as studying and film work—to see what I did well, what I didn’t do well, and trying to improve on it. It’s constant evolution.
A POSITIVE START
As a team, I think we’re trending in the right direction. We are playing really well on both ends of the floor, and we’re focused going into each and every single game. I’m excited to have all our guys back now and get our full team in rhythm. It will be fun to see where we can go with our full roster.
But you’re already starting to see us use the experiences we’ve had in the past and the struggles we’ve gone through, and learn from some of those games that we lost the last couple of years. That’s something you can’t teach. It just has to happen. Guys are getting older, and we’re understanding and figuring out ways to win.
Two guys I’ve really seen grow a lot this year are Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum.
Rudy deserves all the credit in the world for his defense, and it’s been really phenomenal and so beneficial to us. But he’s become a more complete player this year than he had been before. He has really been playing on another level offensively, as far as being a threat when he rolls to the rim. He’s so long and so big, that if he’s able to catch the ball underneath the basket, he’s either scoring it or they’re fouling him. And the way he’s been shooting the ball at the line has turned him into a really good player for us, and gives us another weapon.
Also, the fact that he’s rolling to the rim so well opens up everything else for guys on the backside, for driving lanes, for shots. So he really has evolved as a player, and the scary part is that he can still get even better. As he does, that will continue to make us a better team.
Then when you look at Dante—I just have so much respect for the guy. It’s been a difficult journey for him so far in the NBA. He comes over to the U.S., and as a 19-year-old, he’s thrust into the starting lineup about halfway through his rookie season. Then as he’s getting ready for his first real full season, he gets injured and has to miss the whole year. So he comes back and because of the injuries we’ve had, he’s basically forced to start again. That’s tough for anybody.
But he’s done a tremendous job. He’s improved significantly since his rookie year and he’s figuring out ways that he can score the basketball, how he can impact the game. And the biggest thing is I think he’s learning through it all and he’s getting better. That’s all you can ask from a 21-year-old point guard.
The veterans guys we added this offseason have made a huge impact for us. They each just have a presence about them, and that’s something that a lot of us see and we pick up on. It helps us at the end of the game.
It starts with the approach they take to the game, just being professional. Boris Diaw, George Hill and Joe Johnson have all had great success in places they’ve been before coming to Utah, and that’s a culture we want to cultivate here. So we look to them a bit.
And then the poise those veteran guys have at the end of games or in certain game situations is contagious. Even when George has been out, he’s still contributing by being vocal on the bench, and helping guys out with different things that he sees from the sidelines. He’s quickly become one of our vocal leaders on the team. Even though he hasn’t been out there on the floor as much as he’s wanted to, he still has had an impact on the game and our performance, without a doubt.
When George is out, we play a lot through Boris, and he has been really great at facilitating for us. He just makes the game easier for other people. That’s something we had all heard about before he joined the team, but it’s something else when you’re out there experiencing it. We’ve relied on him a lot offensively at times this year, and it’s really helped me out. I’ve gotten a lot of easy layups and shots just playing off of him. He’s a guy that’s easy and fun to play with, and he’s really helped us this year.
Joe has been huge for us too, the way he’s been playing offensively. It seems like he’s always able to get us a timely bucket when we need one. The thing that is really good about Joe is that when he gets the ball, you just feel comfortable and confident with him having it. Even when a play breaks down he has this knack for turning nothing into something.
It’s usually a big bucket for us, too. Sometimes it’s a big three, or a broken set where he goes one-on-one and gets a big bucket for us or draws a foul. He also has great court vision, so out of those situations, we’ve seen him make some great passes to get somebody else an open look. Those clutch plays have been huge for us.
BUILDING SOMETHING SPECIAL
It’s exciting to have success, and we want to keep building on it.
We’re playing really well defensively, and that is also giving us a chance to be successful at the end of games, regardless of if we’re knocking down shots over the course of a game or not. There have definitely been games where we go through two- or three-minute lapses and don’t score, or don’t play well offensively, but we’re still in the game because of how we’ve guarded on the other end.
The coaches are putting together really good game plans for us, and we’re going out and executing them. Some of these teams that we’ve played, they’re tough to defend. One example is the Thunder. Obviously, they are a team that, when you face them, you really want to try to take away Russell Westbrook as much as you can, which was a hard thing to do. And in other games that we’ve had, there’s been other situations like that, too.
One of the things that’s been really key, especially during the season when you can’t really practice as much because it’s just such a grind, is our team film session. You don’t want to wear guys down, and any time you get a few days between games, you have to utilize it. You use those days to recover, first and foremost. That’s mental recovery and physical recovery. You’ve got to try to keep your body fresh. You can visit with the family, hit the reset button, get your treatments, and then be fresh and ready to go. Other than that, you get back to the basics. We look at film, get back to good habits and being the team we were that was winning games.
So a lot of practice turns into mental practice, and those sessions are really key for us to learn from our mistakes, and see what other teams did against specific guys to be successful. The film sessions are sometimes long, but definitely worth it. And I think they’ve been one of the reasons why we’ve played so well defensively—and offensively, quite frankly.
We still have some work to do as far as closing out games. We’ve had several games where we’ve had double-digit leads and lost them in the fourth quarter, and turned it into a close game. To take the next step, it’s something where we have to turn that 20-point lead into a 25-30-point lead and end the game comfortably. That’s something that we need to get better at.
One of the hardest parts about the NBA is doing anything consistently, and being able to do it over an 82-game season. Individually, a lot of teams can be successful over the course of five games or 10 games. You’ll see teams go on these streaks, and then come back down to earth. But it’s super difficult to do that over the course of the season. So one thing you have to realize is that there’s going to be ups and downs in the season.
You just want to have the ups be a lot longer than the downs.
When we’ve had those downs, there has been no panic, and I think that’s what’s kept it from kind of snowballing on us. We’ve been in those situations a couple times now this season, and we’ve honestly just played our way out of it. Our mindset has just been, “We’ve got to play harder. We’ve got to compete, bring a little bit more energy.”
And that’s what we do.