NEW ORLEANS — Even when the Utah Jazz were the hottest team in the NBA less than two weeks ago, even when the Jazz were in the midst of winning 15 of 19 games, their head coach Will Hardy knew there would be rough nights on the horizon. And what he wondered was how his team would react when it once again inevitably hit some adversity.
Nobody goes unscathed through 82 games. Aside from less than five teams in the history of the league, everyone goes through regular-season doldrums. The key for everyone, and for this Jazz roster that has a slighter margin for error than most, lies in identifying the origin of the doldrums and doing something about it.
The raw numbers Tuesday night in New Orleans go beyond ugly. In a 153-124 loss to the Pelicans, the Jazz allowed New Orleans to score its most points in franchise history. The Jazz allowed their most points in over three decades. By the end of the night, the Pelicans and Jazz were going up and down with about the same intensity that you would see in a Monday morning run at Lifetime Fitness. By the end of the night, the only cliffhanger left seemed tied to just how many wide-open 3-pointers Jose Alvarado could hit.
“It was one of those games where you are glad that they count as just one,” Hardy said. “Whether you lose by one or 90, it counts as one loss. But the reality is that this team needs to regroup right now. The reality of tonight’s game and of the last three games is that we’re just not playing hard enough.”
Utah’s lost three straight. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s relevant is the same malady affecting the Jazz in almost every defeat. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Jazz didn’t get to loose balls that should have been theirs, leading to killer second-chance points. In Saturday night’s one-point loss to the Houston Rockets, the Jazz didn’t get to loose balls that should have been theirs, leading to killer second-chance points. Tuesday night’s loss wasn’t close enough for it to really matter, but it was more of the same.
The Jazz are tired, yes. They are trudging along on the road, sure. And for the second consecutive year, a portion of their roster doesn’t know where they are going to be playing basketball for a living after the upcoming trade deadline. And they are in the throes of January basketball, commonly referred to as the dog days of the NBA regular season. But, Hardy and the coaching staff are imploring the players to not give into natural instinct to be fatigued physically and mentally, although there is an understanding of where that comes from. And to have games like Tuesday night, where nothing goes right and the Jazz surrender the rope early, is something nobody involved wants to see.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 24, 2024
“When the games start, we have to find a way to crank up the gas,” Utah star forward Lauri Markkanen said. “Yes, they got out into transition and hit a lot of 3s. But they also played with a lot more energy than we did, and they played a lot more physically than we did.”
From a technical standpoint, the Pelicans played a lot better than Utah did. They scored both from the 3-point line and in the paint. Defensively, they sped the Utah offense up. They didn’t allow the Jazz to be comfortable on either side of the floor. They got out to a big lead, and even when Utah made a run in the second half, New Orleans found its footing and again opened a big lead.
To be clear, Tuesday night would have been a tough go for the Jazz under the best circumstances. New Orleans is long and athletic and talented and deep in a lot of spots on the floor. When at their best, the Pelicans are good enough to play with any team in the league. That made Tuesday night something of a perfect storm. The Jazz played poorly, and New Orleans played well, exceptional even. But, the Jazz giving into how well the Pelicans played turned Tuesday night into the blowout we saw.
“Whatever happens with guys during the day, when 7 o’clock rolls around, you gotta find a way to crank up the gas,” Hardy said. “You have to find a way to play with your hair on fire for two and a half hours. Then, you can go back to being tired.”
For this Jazz team to be competitive, a lot of things have to go right. Markkanen and Collin Sexton have to be playing well. The Jazz have to hit shots collectively. They have to find a way to defend and get stops, which isn’t always easy for this roster. And that’s why playing hard is so essential to this group. The Jazz of a few years ago used to be the team that could give a suboptimal effort for 35 minutes, make shots in a blaze of glory for the other 13 minutes and win going away. This team has to scratch and claw for 48 minutes to have a shot at winning on most nights. The issue is that it’s impossible to sustain that kind of effort through 82 games. And that, in essence, is why this roster is going through such peaks and valleys.
“The good thing is that this team is together,” Hardy said. “And the good thing is that we’re still playing well offensively.”
What the Jazz have to do, and the players know this, is fight the temptation to give into the dog days of January basketball. This is the other side of things for Utah. In some ways, the Jazz getting on that hot streak came from taking advantage of January basketball, with hurt and fatigued teams coming into the elevation of Delta Center. Now, the Jazz are on the road, in the dead of winter, for six games. Smoothie King Center was dank and cold at tipoff. Good seats well into the lower bowl were being sold for cheap online. And a really good team waited for them on the other end.
Utah can’t allow this to multiply, and the Jazz know it. It goes back to playing hard and playing with energy. Even if you have to manufacture that energy on your own.
(Photo of Lauri Markkanen and Larry Nance Jr.: Matthew Hinton / USA Today)