At the halfway point of the 2021-22 NBA season, it's been a tale of two teams for the Jazz.
One on end, Utah sits in fourth place in the Western Conference, closer to first place than they are to fifth place in the standings. On the other end, they're a team who's in the midst of a season-high four-game losing streak, albeit with asterisks in those losses considering the severely depleted roster Utah had.
But that's entirely behind the team now as they're looking ahead to the second half of the season — and, more importantly, accomplishing their ultimate goal.
"We're trying to win a championship," Donovan Mitchell said matter-of-factly on Saturday afternoon.
Helping aide that journey, two huge pieces are expected to return to the lineup as Rudy Gobert and Rudy Gay — both of whom were in health and safety protocols — are expected back on the court when the Jazz face Denver on Sunday night. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. MST.
"There is a lot of movement, a lot of things going on, so this is totally different," Gay said about losing shorthanded due to the ongoing pandemic. "We have a great core of guys. … As soon as we get them back, we'll be right back on track."
Their return comes at an optimum time as the Jazz have struggled on the defensive end throughout the losing streak. With the reigning three-time defensive player of the year in Gobert missing the previous five games, Utah's defensive rating went from fifth in the league to 12th in that short span.
But regardless of how good Gobert is on that end of the court, Jordan Clarkson spoke Saturday, understanding that it takes a team effort to play successful defense — and that's what practice has been about the past two days.
"It's just defense. It's all focus. … It is what it is," Clarkson said on Saturday. "That's what we're going to hold our hat on, that's what we've been talking about all year. Just defense. … We know what we gotta do."
Utah's slippage on defense is understandable considering they have the league's best offensive rating by a significant margin. The difference between Utah (116.3) and Miami (112.3) for the first and second highest-rated offenses is greater than the difference between the Heat and the Knicks (108.4), ranked 24th in the league.
But even with that high-powered offense, the Jazz understand that to win a championship, they have to be elite on both ends of the court instead of relying solely on an offense that's beyond dominant.
"We know what we can do offensively," Clarkson said. "Sometimes I think we fall into feeling like we can outscore teams because we know how powerful we are offensively. All the effort has gotta come on the defensive end. … It's black and white, we got to do it at this point."
The Jazz will have a chance to turn things around when they face the Nuggets for the third time this season. Already 2-0 against them on the year, Utah took down Nikola Jokic and Denver a week and a half ago with Gobert and Hassan Whiteside sidelined. Bojan Bogdanovic was dominant with 36 points, while Gay dropped 18 points off the bench.
"It's never easy to watch your team lose games," Gobert said. "But I do think that sometimes when you go through tough stretches as a team down the stretch, it can make you better, and I think you know that stretch is gonna make us better down the road."
STATSUtah (28-14, 14-6 away / No. 4 Western Conference)Offense*115.1 Points Per Game (No. 1 in NBA)*116.3 Offensive Rating (No. 1 in NBA)
Defense*107.6 Points Per Game (No. 12 in NBA)*108.7 Defensive Rating (No. 12 in NBA)
*Donovan Mitchell: 25.7 points / 5.1 assists / 3.8 rebounds*Rudy Gobert: 15.5 points / 15.1 rebounds / 70.6% shooting*Bojan Bogdanovic: 17.9 points / 4.1 rebounds / 40.7% 3P-territory*Jordan Clarkson: 15.3 points / 3.4 rebounds / 26.0 minutes
Denver (21-19, 10-7 home / No. 6 Western Conference)Offense*106.4 Points Per Game (No. 23 in NBA)*109.1 Offensive Rating (No. 19 in NBA)
Defense*105.7 Points Per Game (No. 9 in NBA)*108.7 Defensive Rating (No. 13 in NBA)
*Nikola Jokic 25.5 points / 14.0 rebounds / 7.0 assists*Will Barton: 15.3 points / 4.8 rebounds / 4.2 assists*Aaron Gordon: 14.0 points / 5.7 rebounds / 52.6% shooting*Monte Morris: 12.6 points / 38.4% 3P-territory
MATCHUP TO WATCHRudy Gobert vs. Nikola Jokic— The best defensive player in the game against arguably the best offensive player in the game, what more could an NBA fan want. Gobert make this return after a five-game absence, looking to help the Jazz get back on track defensively. Meanwhile Jokic, the reining MVP, is almost single-handedly keeping Denver alive in the playoff chase.
INJURY REPORTUtahAVAILABLE — Rudy Gay (Return to Competition Reconditioning) AVAILABLE — Rudy Gobert (Return to Competition Reconditioning)QUESTIONABLE — Udoka Azubuike (Return to Competition Reconditioning)OUT — Jared Butler (Health & Safety Protocols)OUT — Elijah Hughes (Health & Safety Protocols)OUT — Hassan Whiteside (Health & Safety Protocols)
BROADCAST INFORMATIONTime: 6:00 p.m. MSTLocation: Ball Arena / Denver, COTV: AT&T SportsNetRadio: 1280 The Zone