Long road trips are a normal part of the NBA season.
It's something the Utah Jazz have not only become accustomed to, their latest track record shows them thriving when playing in the home arenas of their opponents.
Before last Friday's game in Toronto, Utah was sitting at 14-3 on the road, which was the best road record by any team in the NBA to that point. Unfortunately, three consecutive losses on the road now has the team scratching its head and wondering where it went wrong.
The performances in those losses — Toronto, Indiana, and Detroit — are not worthy of a team looking to bring home its first NBA title. Donovan Mitchell said as much following the loss to the Pistons on Monday night.
"We are fooling ourselves if we say we're gonna win a championship and we have a night like tonight," Mitchell said postgame.
Make no mistake, Mitchell was right. If the Jazz are to be the last team standing, nights like Monday cannot become part of the norm.
But digging deeper into the losses, it turns out that Utah was certainly swimming upstream in those games.
Dealing with a myriad of injuries with his roster, head coach Quin Snyder elected to keep out most of his regular rotation against the Raptors. In ensuing losses to the Pacers and Pistons, the Jazz were dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that severely hampered the team's depth — not to mention sidelining three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.
Gobert's absence on both ends of the court loomed large as Utah is built defensively around the reigning defensive player of the year.
The Jazz had the league's fifth-best defensive rating with him in the lineup. The guards are aggressive on the perimeter, knowing Gobert turns away almost any shot at the rim. His ability to defend the pick-and-roll is unprecedented, as well as his help-side defense and communication.
But following three losses, all without Gobert and against offenses ranked in the bottom half of the rankings, the Jazz defense is currently ranked 12th in the league.
While Snyder is not one to use excuses, it's hard to quantify how valuable Gobert is to the Jazz. But if anything was learned throughout the road trip, it's that the big man in the middle is critical to Utah's success.
"Well, there's a guy named Rudy Gobert that wasn't out there," Snyder said postgame against Detroit. "I don't think there's any mystery in that if the Defensive Player of the Year is not on the floor, you're not going to be as good defensively,"
"When you don't have Rudy Gobert out there, our intensity has to turn up," Mitchell added.
Despite the recent three-game losing streak — its longest of the season — this is still a Utah team capable of winning it all.
When healthy, there isn’t a team in the league that can compete with them offensively. Defensively, Gobert is manning the middle to make life difficult on anyone who approaches.
At the end of the day the Jazz aren't panicking, fully understanding that those losses are just three games in a season with 82 of them. Utah has officially reached the season's halfway point, sitting in third place in the Western Conference standings, just three games behind first-place Golden State.
The Jazz will have a chance to rectify things over the next 10 games, seven of which come against six of the top-8 teams in the Western Conference. They'll start the second half of the season with a home game against Cleveland on Wednesday night, with tipoff set for 7 p.m. MST.
"Our goal is to be the best version of ourselves at the end of the year. … This game needs to help focus us," Snyder said.
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