It’s fair to argue that the Jazz were expected to triumph over the Magic yesterday. After all, they sported a win-loss slate that was at least three and a half games better than the rest of the National Basketball Association. Meanwhile, their hosts were among the worst in the league, eight wins under .500 and much closer to the bottom than to the top. Then again, nothing is etched in stone amid a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on schedules and rosters alike. And they did head to the Amway Center with a handicap in the absence of starting point guard Mike Conley, arguably the best player in pro hoops annals never to be named an All-Star.
When the final buzzer sounded, however, projection turned to reality with plenty of wiggle room. After a sluggish first half that had them hard-pressed to shake off the Magic, they managed to assert themselves the rest of the way. And if there’s anything their 15-point victory showed, it’s that they’re for real. Propelled by head coach Quin Snyder’s egalitarian offense and stout defense, they’re running roughshod over their supposed peers. They’ve proven to be remarkably deep; for all the importance of Conley to the cause, they’re a heady seven of seven when Joe Ingles steps in to start. Meanwhile, reserve Jordan Clarkson appears to be a lock for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
There can be no forgetting Donovan Mitchell, of course, not even while Gobert has played so well as to be considered among the leading Most Valuable Player candidates. Indeed, the 13th overall pick in 2017, just named to a second straight All-Star berth, remains on an upward trajectory; he still paces the Jazz in scoring, but has become a much-improved playmaker of late. Forget Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal’s claim that “he great, but he ain’t that great;” the unwarranted criticism notwithstanding, he figures to keep getting better and better.
The question, of course, is whether the Jazz can keep up their scorching run — enough, at least, to be deemed bona fide contenders to the throne. Last week, they made short work of the Lakers, defending titleholders in a rut, seemingly signaling the answer. Then again, the reckoning that truly counts will come in the playoffs. Can they beat the best of the best in multiple seven-game series? If nothing else, they’re getting the reps they need to do so.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.