We’re hitting the home stretch of the season now, with just 10 games left before the playoffs.
I’m really proud of where we stand. We’ve had some ups and downs of late, but we do a good job of not getting too high or too low, and that’s a credit to everybody in this organization—coaches, players, staff, everyone, top to bottom.
That’s a big reason why this season has been really special to me. I’ve been here for seven years now, and in that time, this franchise has had a lot more valleys than we’ve had peaks. It makes it that much more rewarding to see us have success. Over the last few years, we’ve added some guys and seen some guys leave, but we’ve maintained a certain group who have kind of been our core. It’s been special to go through this year with them.
I hope this season has been special for our fans, too. We’ve had some seasons that were probably pretty tough to be a Utah Jazz fan, but they’ve been loyal and stuck with us. As a player, it’s cool to see all the excitement in the city, and the fans really coming alive behind us.
We’ve had some big wins since the All-Star break against teams that have kind of had our number in the past. We went into Houston and beat them a few weeks ago, then followed that up with a win over the Clippers at home. There’s a different feeling around this team than there was before.
One of our problems in the past was that we lacked confidence because we had struggled against those teams before. We would let doubt seep in. But that’s not the case anymore. Going into both those games, we had a mindset of, “This is our game. We can win this game.” Because of that, we played a lot better. We didn’t play nervous or scared.
It’s fun to play in those games. That game against the Clippers had a playoff-like atmosphere. You make a couple of buckets in a row and it almost forces the other team to call a timeout because the crowd is so into it. That’s huge for us. It brings the energy up, and we thrive on that.
When we’re playing well, for the most part, it comes down to really executing our game plan. Whether that’s a specific defensive plan that the coaches have for us, or specific offensive things we want to exploit, as far as match-ups and how other teams are guarding us. We’ve just done a good job of executing, and that’s a credit to the coaches for putting us in positions to succeed.
LEANING ON A COUPLE JOES
Even when we’ve had some lulls, we’ve been able to bounce back pretty well. Part of that has to do with some of the veterans we have on the team. A lot of them have been in playoff situations and have been on really successful teams. They knew that, after the break, we had to amp it up a little bit. So we’re following their lead.
Coming into the season, we expected to lean on those guys at different times. Joe Johnson has been huge for us, especially of late with some of the injuries we’ve had to deal with. We’ve kind of transitioned and moved him into playing a lot of four for us, and his impact and his versatility have been really important to our success. He’s a guy that’s been able to make plays for us in crunch-time situations—not only for himself, but for other guys as well. His shot-making ability has been a great addition, too.
We’ve also leaned heavily on Joe Ingles. He’s stepped into a bigger role for us this season and he’s been tremendous for us. I give him a lot of credit because he’s been here a few years, but with the additions we made this offseason, he didn’t know what to expect as far as the rotation, and whether he would be in it or not. But he’s just come to work every single day, and whenever someone was injured, he stepped up and was big. He’s definitely worked himself into the rotation now, and there’s no question that he’s a key piece of our success.
It just goes to show how important depth is in this game. You can build a great core of players, but things happen over the course of the season that are beyond your control, and if you don’t have guys on your roster who can step up, things can fall apart quickly.
DOWN THE STRETCH
As the regular season comes to a close, this is the time we really want to come together. We want to be playing our best basketball come April.
To do that, we really need to get back to our principles and play well defensively. That has to be our calling card. It’s what keeps us in games, especially on the road when we might not have our best shooting night. On the offensive end, we want to make sure that we’re coming together as a group, playing for each other, and playing a connected and fluid game.
We have some tough challenges here in our final 10 games, so it’s going to be a good test to see where we’re at, and where our concentration is going into the postseason.
Home-court advantage is definitely something that we’re striving for. I think that would be a big help for us, especially as a team that doesn’t have very many guys with playoff experience. That being said, it’s definitely not an end-all, be-all for us.
I’ve never been on a team that’s won 50 games, so that would definitely be cool to achieve, but I don’t necessarily look at that as a goal for us, either. We’ll take as many wins as we need to get to be where we want to be. It’s never a certain number. We want to make sure that we get in the playoffs, and obviously, we want to try to get home-court advantage. If we can do that, then you roll with it in the playoffs.
I’m really looking forward to the run heading into the playoffs. There’s a different kind of energy to these games. They’re all really meaningful as teams are jostling for position, and that’s something that I haven’t been a part of too much. The environment in these arenas, especially at home for us, has been incredible.
I’m so thankful for the support of our fans all season. We need you guys now more than ever, so let’s get ready for this run we’re going to make.
THE BIG DANCE
While I’ve spent the vast majority of my time focusing on what we’re doing in Utah, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my guys over at Butler. I’m definitely excited to see what they can do in the Big Dance again.
They hadn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since the year after I left, so it’s great to see them back.
They’ve got a tough challenge ahead, but one thing I do know is that they’re going to have a good game plan. They’ve always had great scouts, and they’ll be prepared. They’re a dangerous team for sure. They’re always dangerous come March.
I just hope, regardless of the result, those guys really enjoy the experience. Throughout my career I’ve been in situations where I’ve been in big games and big moments, and I’ve leaned on the ones I went through at Butler. I can imagine that will help me in the playoffs as well. So all those experiences are things that you can try to learn from and use in your future career.
That run we went on the through the tournament, getting to the NCAA title game my sophomore year, was kind of the moment where I really thought I might be able to play in the NBA.
There were guys that we were going against who were projected lottery picks and expected to be big-time players in the NBA. And I felt like I matched up well against them and went toe-to-toe with them and came through successfully. I really didn’t even think about playing in the NBA too much before that. It was always a dream, but that was kind of about it. After going through the tournament and making it all the way to the final, it was something where I felt like I might have a chance.
I’d say it’s worked out pretty well.
I was so honored to be an NBA All-Star this year, and the experience in New Orleans was one of a kind.
Being recognized as one of the best players in our game is humbling. I was thrilled to be a part of the whole thing, playing in the main event itself, not just kind of a side note as I had been in years past. Being around some of these guys all weekend, on their level, talking to them and hanging out with them, was really cool for me. It gave me a lot of confidence.
It’s kind of strange to say, but I really enjoyed the practices. We practiced in front of a bunch of fans, so they had us doing little events and games with everyone there. The atmosphere was light-hearted and fun, so that was something that I liked a lot.
Participating in the Skills Challenge was a lot of fun as well. It was a great event, but it went by so fast. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but when you watch it on television, it seems like there is a lot of time between everything. There really isn’t.
There’s not that much time to warm-up. You take photos, go out on the court, and then it’s like, “All right. You’re up for Round 1.” And you go right into it. Then, they have you doing it really kind of back-to-back-to-back. It was funny because it was this whirlwind where all of a sudden I found myself in the finals, and I felt like it took no more than 10 minutes.
I wish I would have won, but Kristaps was locked in. I was a little surprised that he hit the first pass and the first shot, so I didn’t necessarily have a chance. But we’ve all seen his game, and his abilities, and what he’s able to do. He’s a great player and a very skilled big man. I think I was ahead going into the layup, but I got caught and went too far under the basket. So he was ahead going the other way, made the shot and I didn’t really have a chance. Still, it was fun to be a part of it. Kudos to him for the win.
The All-Star game itself wasn’t really much of a game, and as a first-timer, it was hard to know exactly what to do. I tried to follow everyone else’s lead. There really wasn’t much defense. It was kind of just a show. When you got the ball, you shot it or passed to somebody else who dunked it.
I got a couple of dunks. I think I had a couple of passes for dunks, too. Somebody said I tied for the game lead in steals. I guess that’s not saying much, considering there was no defense. But because it was my first one, I didn’t know exactly how to play, how hard to go, or anything like that.
I do think it would be better for everybody if it was played a little more seriously, and was more like actual basketball. It’s tough because you don’t want to get guys hurt. Nobody wants to get injured in a game that doesn’t count, so either everybody has to play hard, or no one does. Because when one guy is going full speed and the other one is not, that is where you can get guys hurt. I’m sure they will figure out something soon to make it more competitive.
The goal of the weekend for me was to try and soak it all up. You only get selected to your first All-Star game once. So I had a bunch of family there, and tried to really enjoy every moment.
My mom and dad were down there, as well as my sister and her husband. Obviously, Robyn was there with me, and her dad and two brothers were also able to come down. So I had quite a few people there. There’s so much going on, so I didn’t get to spend too much time with everybody, but I got a chance to have dinner with them and hang out for a little bit.
Robyn and I enjoyed having some time off from parenting. We had a couple of nights where we could hang out just by ourselves, which was fun. But you don’t realize how much you miss your kids until they’re not there. We found ourselves wondering what they were doing, and trying to do video calls to see them. They’re not exactly old enough to really understand video calling, but we just wanted to see them. We both definitely missed them a lot.
At the same time, we for sure enjoyed the time off in a really fun environment. I had never seen New Orleans like that. It was just crazy packed. I’ve been there plenty of times on road trips, but a lot of times you’re there for a game day and then right back out that night, headed to the next stop on the trip. I had been around the city a little bit when I was a rookie. I remember we were given the task of going and getting the team beignets from Cafe du Monde. So we walked around, got something to eat, and went to some of the little shops. It was cool to experience it then. But I hadn’t knocked around New Orleans in a long time, and All-Star weekend was on another level in terms of the environment.
People were lined up on the streets. Of course, it was Mardi Gras there too, so that only added to the chaos, especially at nighttime. You had parades popping up out of nowhere all of the time; it seemed like the whole, entire day. So traffic was gridlocked. There was nowhere to go. It was just a lot of people having a lot of fun. It was something I’ll never forget.