SALT LAKE CITY — Things didn't start off too well for the Utah Jazz on Saturday.
Five minutes into the game, they had just 2 points as they struggled with an aggressive defense while trying to find some energy on the second night of a back-to-back.
That led to some rare territory: They were actually behind — and by a decent amount. The Heat had a 9-point lead midway through the opening quarter, and it probably should have been more with Utah giving up some open looks.
"You're not gonna play well the whole game," Utah coach Quin Snyder said. "But you can figure out when you are sliding. And when you make a mistake, you can dig in and focus more and not make the same mistake again."
That might just be the secret to the Jazz's absurd stretch that has propelled them to the top of the NBA standings after going 18-1 over the last 19 games. The wins haven't been close (16 have come by more than double digits), and the single loss came on a historic 3-point night from the Denver Nuggets. It's easy to say the Jazz are simply "clicking," but that might not be giving them enough credit, either.
Yes, there are times when everything looks easy. But, like early against the Heat, there are times when it's a slog. The impressive thing is the Jazz have nearly always found a way out.
Basketball is a game of mistakes — passes will be off-target, shots will be passed up, defensive assignments blown. With hundreds of possessions each game, there are hundreds of unique chess matches with teams trying to exploit each others' weaknesses. Mentally, it can be a drain; physically, it can be exhausting; and it's just a simple fact that not every possession will be won.
"Obviously, you're never gonna play a perfect game and I think coach has said it before, 'No team has ever been shut out in the NBA.' So, obviously, we know we're going to make mistakes but it's just moving on to the next play," Georges Niang said.
If Donovan Mitchell turns the ball over, he better sprint back down the court. If Bojan Bogdanovic misses a defensive rotation, he better make sure he's there next time. If Rudy Gobert thinks he gets fouled, he better not waste a defensive possession arguing with the refs.
"Coach does a really good job of hammering home the little things with us whether that's not talking to the ref after a play or making sure we run back on defense or making the extra pass," Niang said.
That focus has only seemed to grow as the wins have piled up. There's an understanding among the team about just how good they can be. It's not common for a team to be both a top four offensive and defensive team, according to Cleaning the Glass; it's not common for a team to have more double-digit wins than most of the league simply has wins. Utah has a collective sense of pride in how it's playing — no one wants to be the reason that play drops.
"We really try to enjoy the process, enjoy ourselves, but there is nothing easy," Gobert said. "If anything, it's harder when every team is trying to come in and make a statement by beating you."
You don't have the best record in the NBA without getting a target on your back. But the thing is, they've been on top of the NBA standings for some time now. The blowouts have just kept coming ... and coming … and coming.
Utah is in an enviable position: Over the course of the last month, its biggest challenge has been holding sizable advantages. That's a mighty first-world NBA problem — and one the Jazz are figuring out, too. Utah built a 23-point lead in the second half on Saturday. The Heat only ever trimmed that to 15 — hardly what you'd consider a comeback attempt.
"Mistakes are gonna happen, but it really is a question of how you deal with them," Snyder said. "And we've been much better — essentially 'not letting up' so to speak, when we've got a lead. We've played with urgency. I think it's just a maturation process for the group.
A commitment to the "little things" — always running the court, not complaining, moving on to the next play, among many others — is why the Jazz feel they have been so successful and so dominant over the last month of the season. It's how they've stopped runs and how they've gone on runs; it's how they've turned leads from 5 points to 20 points and why they've been able to ward off comebacks. That's why the results haven't changed as the schedule has toughened up.
"I think those little things add up on a night-to-night basis and that's how you win games and other teams lose games because they refuse to do or hold each other accountable to do those little things," Niang said. "One thing, especially after the playoff series last year and our ups and downs, that coach has put his foot down on is being All-Stars at the little things."