The Utah Jazz know what people have said about them this season.
When you trade All-Stars like Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert along with all of your starters while gobbling up draft picks, outsiders often downplay your chances of success and use words like “tanking” to describe the state of your franchise.
“It’s not easy to go into a season where everybody’s telling you that you’re not very good,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said after his team surprised Sacramento in a 128-120 victory. “There’s obviously rough patches at points in the season. … You lose four in a row, you dip a certain number of games below .500, and everybody says, ‘Oh, there it is, it’s over,’ and that’s natural.”
Utah, which hosts Portland on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, continued to deal with that attitude after management traded away three more key players and left Hardy with a young and inexperienced squad.
Even with the roster turnover and unproven talent, the Jazz somehow managed to keep winning. Not all of the time, but enough to make others #takenote, as their team hashtag mentions. And even when they haven’t won, the team has been competitive in most games.
The past two games showed the Jazz’s resiliency. On Saturday, they beat the Boston Celtics. Then on Monday, Utah jumped out to a huge 25-point lead and pushed to a victory despite that massive advantage turning into a deficit in the fourth quarter.
And they did that against the Kings, one of the top teams in the Western Conference, despite injuries to inactive starters Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton. That led Hardy to boast about his players, saying “they haven’t backed off one bit. They haven’t given in, ever.”
Casual NBA fans might scratch their heads when looking at the boxscore from the Jazz-Kings game, which included eight Utah players reaching double figures in scoring. Rookie Ochai Agbaji led the way with a career-high 27 points, including six 3-pointers.
Agbaji and teammates clearly listened to their coach and ignored outsiders’ narratives.
“The way that they fight every day, the way that they are committed to trying to win, the way that they’ve all sacrificed for the group. For that to happen, I’m so happy for them,” Hardy said. “I love this team. I hope you guys do, too.”
The Jazz (35-36) come into this game against the Blazers having won four of five and still in contention for the postseason.
Portland (31-40) has lost six straight and nine of 11, and the Blazers are fading from a play-in spot.
The Blazers did get a 60-point performance from Damian Lillard the last time these teams played. Lillard hit 21 of 29 shots, including nine 3-pointers and nine free throws, in a 134-124 win two months ago.
“I think any time you score 60 points it’s special, but I think this one I just felt like it came pretty simple,” Lillard said. “I thought I played the game as it should’ve been played. I knew we needed to win so I came out with a mentality to attack and be aggressive, but it wasn’t like I just came out on fire. It wasn’t one of those games.”