When Utah tips off with Dallas on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, the Jazz will find themselves in a spot they're not accustomed to being in; the underdogs.
Over the past couple of years, Utah has entered the postseason as favorites in their opening-round series — and for a good reason. Incredible performances in the regular season — as evidenced by owning the league's best record last year — allowed the Jazz to play game one inside the comfortable confines of Vivint Arena.
But as everyone knows, those trips to the playoffs — including last season — all came up short of their ultimate goal; bringing Salt Lake City its first NBA title.
"Last year, it wasn't our fault, but we were just cruising through the season and were playing really good basketball," Rudy Gobert said. Then when we faced adversity in the playoffs, it was kind of like we weren't really prepared for that."
That's what makes this season so unique for the Jazz. Gone were the days of glory and easily running through teams in the regular season, and in its place were struggles and growing pains they hadn't experienced in a while.
They didn't finish with the best record in the league, they might not have a player win an individual accolade, and head coach Quin Snyder won't be named the Coach of the Year. They went through various struggles, from an atrocious January to a brutal March, while dealing with injuries and health and safety protocols. They've struggled on both ends of the court and in late-game situations.
That's why nearly everyone in the national media is predicting that Utah's trip to the postseason will come to a very unceremonious end in the opening round against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.
And that's just fine with the Jazz.
"This year, I feel like we're different. I feel like we are more mature. … I like our chances," Gobert said. "I think all those challenges that we faced really made us better and prepared us better for what's coming. … I'm just grateful and excited to have that opportunity, and we're going to be ready."
Let it be known, this is not the same Utah team that had flamed out early in the postseason the last couple of seasons. This is a team built through adversity and hardship, one that's had no choice but to overcome trials and tribulations by relying on one another and the trust in the locker room.
They know what it's like to be at the bottom and keep fighting through it. They know what it's like to have very little consistency on the court when it comes to players, having dealt with ridiculous injuries and protocols.
So why, amidst all these issues, are the Jazz feeling so confident entering Saturday?
"We talked about, it feels like a decade ago, that the strength of the team is the team," Snyder said. "When we embrace that, that's when we're at our best — on both ends of the floor. So I think we've got a group that's got some very talented players, but ultimately our strength is that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. And that's how we've got to play."
But it's hard to have strength in the team when the team isn't available, and that's precisely the lesson Utah learned. It's also why Snyder and his staff emphasized health over victories late in the year.
Sure, he could've played his core group insane minutes with hopes of taking down Dallas, Golden State, and Phoenix in April. Instead, he played his guys their normal rotation minutes — even when other teams weren't — and it might've cost them some of those wins.
But, it didn't cost them health. And now Utah will enter the postseason the healthiest they've been in three years.
"I mean, it's huge. ... That's why we put so much emphasis on taking care of ourselves," Gobert said. "It's not about one game or two games, it's about who's getting better throughout the playoffs, too. … For us, that's our mindset, just taking care of ourselves and being able to be physically and mentally ready to do it longer than the other team."
"I think for us to go into the playoff series knowing that we have most of our guys healthy, especially guys who have been in the rotation consistently, that's a win for us," Mike Conley added. "We understand that."
You can throw out everything that happened in the regular season for Utah. As far as the Jazz are concerned, a brand new season begins on Saturday — one they're built better to deal with from both a mental and physical standpoint.
"We haven't been healthy, but we're healthy now," Snyder said. "Hopefully that stays consistent, but I know we've got a team that's been looking forward to this."
This is not the same Utah team of the past few years — this is a team built through adversity and hardship, one that's had no choice but to overcome trials and tribulations by relying on one another and the trust in the locker room