Even sports reporters sometimes get an evening off — but that doesn’t mean they won’t spend it watching sports.
I got the opportunity to officially take off my professional hat and just watch a game with friends and family in the stands like 14,000 other fans Wednesday night, something that doesn’t happen very often.
But it was quite a show.
I was in the upper bowl at Vivint Arena as the top-seeded Utah Jazz finished off Memphis in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, exploding to an enormous early lead and cruising to the victory.
I have to admit that it was pretty enjoyable to be looking around, watching the reaction as Donovan Mitchell set the tone as part of a 47-point first quarter.
My nephew and I talked about how that would’ve equated to 188 points if the Jazz had maintained that pace. I didn’t know it then but that would’ve broken the record for the most points ever in an NBA game (the current high was 186 scored by Denver in a triple-overtime game in 1983).
Even though I was there to just watch the game, I still couldn’t keep from breaking down why the Jazz were so effective.
The obvious place to start was with what Utah was doing on offense.
Yes, Mitchell was impressive as he tallied 14 points in less than six-and-a-half minutes but he was far from being the only Jazz player who was playing at a high level.
Utah was attacking in a variety of ways, getting to the rim, pulling up from 10 feet, moving the ball and — of course — hitting 3-pointers (the Jazz made 17 total on Wednesday, nine of which came in the first quarter).
But I also felt like Utah played smart defense, even though the Grizzlies tallied 27 points in the frame. The Jazz were challenging Memphis but did so without fouling (only two fouls in the quarter), which allowed Utah to maintain their offensive flow.
The bottom line was that the quick start allowed Utah to take care of business against a scrappy Memphis team and move on to the second round for the first time since 2018.
But as I sat there, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bigger picture and asking: Is this Jazz team ready to take its place in the pantheon of the great teams in franchise history?
Here are some of the pros and cons I came up with as I contemplated that question:
The 2020-21 squad became the first Utah team ever to have sole possession of the best record in the league during the regular season (two Jazz teams tied for the top mark in the 1990s). That’s an impressive feat, even though their were fewer games than in a normal season.
When healthy, this team has seven players who could get rolling and put up big numbers (Mitchell, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles). Utah can also get significant contributions from Derrick Favors and Georges Niang, which allows head coach Quin Snyder to have a number of options as he works his lineups.
Utah can win games at either end of the court. Sometimes they outscore opponents behind lethal long-range bombing and well-executed sets, while in other games they have to rely on Gobert’s rim-protection and O’Neale’s perimeter defensive prowess to slow down opponents. That’s a nice luxury to have in the playoffs, since there are no guarantees how a game will shake out.
The Jazz weren’t incredibly dominant against the Grizzlies, which came in as the No. 8 seed after winning two play-in games. Memphis beat Utah in Game 1 and had chances to push the series deeper in both Game 3 and Game 4. The Grizzlies looked tired in Wednesday’s loss but still made a late push instead of just folding.
The Jazz still have a lot to prove with regards to facing elite teams in multiple games. Most of the teams left in the playoffs have two or three big-name talents who will test Utah in a seven-game series. This team has to be able to be consistent against opponents who have star power.
Just like for every other team, health could be a big factor. Conley’s hamstring acted up against, resulting in him having to leave Wednesday’s game. Mitchell missed a lot of time with ankle issues, which could always become a concern again. The Jazz saw how much impact missing a piece hurt when Bogdanovic was out during the 2020 playoffs.
I can see valid optimistic and pessimistic arguments about what the next few will hold for the Jazz — but the reality is that Utah is in position to climb onto the pedestal of greatness.
That hasn’t happened for a long time.
The Jazz haven’t won more than one game in a second-round playoff series since 2008 and haven’t reached the Western Conference finals since 2007.
I covered a couple of games during the 2007 run that ended in a 4-1 sweep to the San Antonio Spurs, who went on to sweep Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
I also have great memories of the Jazz glory years of Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek in the mid-1990s, although I was out of the state for most of those runs and didn’t get to see any games in person.
I’ve believed for awhile that Mitchell, Conley and Gobert had the potential to be a title contender.
Now it’s about seeing the potential become reality — and maybe this is the year.