It can not be said otherwise; Utah’s upcoming six-game road trip will go a long way in determining their post-season fate.
While most teams might shrink at the thought of a long road trip spanning 11 days through five different cities, the Jazz aren’t like most teams. They’re a team playing with “house money,” which many didn’t even expect would be in this situation as the calendar flipped to March.
And they are perfectly fine with that.
“It’s an ‘just us’ mentality,” said all-star Lauri Markkanen.
To understand the value of these upcoming games, one must first go back to the beginning.
After welcoming a new head coach, delivering four starters in massive trades and adding 10 new players to a 15-man roster, it was safe to say that October’s expectations were extremely limited. Many — including those within Jazz Nation — believed this team would be better off tanking and starting to rebuild after a high draft pick.
Instead, Utah had other ideas.
Will Hardy has shown he is far more experienced than his rookie status as a freshman head coach would suggest. Walker Kessler is arguably the best defenseman in the rookie class, Collin Sexton is looking like his old self after suffering a season-ending injury last year, and Jordan Clarkson has taken his game to heights many didn’t believe possible.
And finally, Markkanen has emerged as a real star — a first-time All-Star who’s one of the putative front-runners for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
All of this and other reasons are why the Jazz were never a team assembled to refuel. They’re a team that’s proven to be as resilient as can be, not afraid of the clutch and learning through the growing pains.
“I don’t think it’s our job to think about it,” said Markkanen. “We’re concentrating on the pitch. Of course we are competitors and we all want to win, so let’s try not to lose. We’re just trying to focus on that day and trying to win basketball games. … So hopefully we have everyone’s support.”
Utah enters the final stretch of the season with a brutal six-game road trip, beginning with back-to-back showdowns against the Thunder — a team in a very similar situation to the Jazz. If you win both games you’re well into the playoff race, but if you lose two you can start planning your summer start in mid-April.
The Jazz are currently No. 9 in the West at 31-32
After the Thunder, Utah takes on Dallas, Orlando, Charlotte and Miami. The Mavericks are a game ahead of the Jazz at 7th in the West, while the Heat are 7th in the East at 33-30. Charlotte is almost out of the playoffs while the Magic are struggling.
“Obviously the coaches, including me, would be lying to you if we said we didn’t look at the league tables,” Hardy said. “We definitely do. … But in terms of messaging to the team, things are so tight at the moment that it’s just trying to play good basketball.”
Make no mistake, every game is winnable for the Jazz – they are that good and had won four out of six before a shock loss to San Antonio on Tuesday. But there’s another factor in Jazz’s favor – nobody believes in their chances after the season.
That makes it all the more tempting for this team to take to the streets. The underdog mentality is something Hardy has tapped into all season and that’s why the Jazz find themselves in contention.
“I kinda like to play on the go,” said Markkanen. “It’s our team, we have to stick together because it’s all we have. It’s great to go to other arenas. … It’s just us and we’ll have to figure it out on the road, just stick together.”