Streaking Jazz make sweet music coming out of All-Star break
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) A few weeks ago, it appeared the Utah Jazz might be headed to the draft lottery. Those around the NBA weren't buying it.
''They've got some good players, so I don't think anybody was surprised they fought their way back in,'' Portland guard Damian Lillard said.
As the season picks back up following the All-Star break, the Jazz are riding an 11-game winning streak. They are part of a tight cluster of Western Conference teams vying for playoff position with some two months left in the regular season.
It's been quite a rise.
Utah's last loss was back on Jan. 22. The Jazz fell to 19-28 after losing 104-90 to Atlanta and were 18 games behind the conference-leading Warriors.
''There were times where we kind of looked like we didn't want to play, myself included,'' Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell said after the loss to the Hawks, who are last in the Eastern Conference. ''That's not us. That's not our identity.''
Rudy Gobert stressed it would be a painful road ''until we start playing more physical and being more focused on what we have to do, individually and collectively.''
Turns out the loss was a turning point of sorts. The resolve started the very next game with a 98-95 overtime win at Detroit. Along the way the Jazz beat the East's top team, Toronto, on the road, and had victories over the Warriors and the Spurs. They downed Portland 115-96, ending the Blazers' nine-game winning streak at home.
''Everything is coming to fruition,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about the Jazz. ''They believe in the system. It takes awhile to put a system in. You have to have players of character who will understand it and execute it.''
The Jazz rolled into the All-Star break with a 107-97 victory at home over Phoenix last Tuesday.
Mitchell has been key, leading the team with an average of 24 points and four rebounds over the 11-game streak. For his rookie season, he has averaged 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
''I think he should be rookie of the year for sure, not just because of his numbers but his impact on their team,'' Lillard said. ''He's basically leading them and it's special to see a rookie be able to do what he's doing out there.''
Over All-Star weekend, Mitchell won the slam dunk contest.
The Jazz also made an important addition with Jae Crowder, acquired in a three-team trade from the Cavaliers at trade deadline. Crowder's father, Corey, played for the Jazz in the 1991-92 season.
In three games with the Jazz, Crowder has averaged 14.7 points and five rebounds and seems to have a new outlook with his new team.
''These guys, they welcomed me right when I walked through the door. And playing with them is very, very, very fun,'' he said following his debut.
The Jazz resume play Thursday, at home against Portland. Coach Quin Snyder was asked whether the All-Star break came at a good time for the Jazz.
''There's two schools of thought, right? Let's get the rest, and get recharged. And then there's well, we've got a rhythm. We don't want to lose the rhythm, let's keep playing,'' Snyder said. ''I'd like us to do both.''