SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz have been a fortuitous bunch this season. As other top teams have dealt with long-term injuries to key players (the LA Lakers, for example) or numerous COVID-19 issues (the Brooklyn Nets), the Jazz have been able to go through the season relatively unscathed.
It's not all just luck.
The Jazz, as a team, have put a strong emphasis in making sure they are following the league's COVID-19 protocols, and Mike Elliot and his training staff won the NBA's training staff of the year award last year for good reason.
"I don't want to sound arrogant or anything, but I feel like we're the best at that regardless, in terms of our training staff that we've got," Joe Ingles said.
So there's been a lot of care taken to make sure the players stay healthy during this tumultuous season. But if the Jazz needed any reminders on how important that health is, they got it on Monday in a loss to the Washington Wizards.
Utah has survived games without Conley before. And without Donovan Mitchell. And Ingles. And Clarkson. But the Jazz haven't had to play with two out at the same time; they're deep, but they aren't that deep.
Little-used guard Trent Forrest was the first man off the bench on Monday — he finished with one assist in 12 minutes. Matt Thomas also got some rare playing time — he recorded one foul and missed his only shot in seven minutes.
"It's really about our entire group," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said when asked about the play of Forrest and Thomas. "As far as any one or two players, regardless of who they are, everybody just needed to be better and we weren't tonight."
As the saying goes, if you can't say anything nice, speak in team generalities. Or, at least, it's something close to that.
Things were so bad for the Jazz bench, a unit that usually features not one, but two Sixth Man of the Year candidates in Clarkson and Ingles, that Miye Oni was named sub of the game for a 3-point, four-rebound, two-assist performance.
The unproductive bench (Utah's reserves only had 14 points between them) led to some big minutes for Monday's starters. Mitchell played 38 minutes and Royce O'Neale played 37 minutes. Bojan Bogdanovic was in for 36 minutes with Rudy Gobert and Ingles playing 33 minutes and 31 minutes, respectively.
Those numbers aren't eye-popping by any means, but when you factor in that Utah will play its fifth game in seven nights on Tuesday against Oklahoma City, those minutes start to add up. A spirited fourth quarter rally aside, this much was clear on Monday: The Jazz were tired.
"I'm not blaming the loss on that, but there definitely was a moment, a few moments, of fatigue," Mitchell said. "But we got to play through that. Washington didn't care, OKC is not gonna care, so we got to be able to fight through that and play through that."
This season has been an endless slog. The five games in seven night run sounds tough, but it's really not much different than what the Jazz have grown accustomed to as they've dealt with a 72-game condensed schedule. Back to backs and hardly any rest have just become the norm. But all those games can lead to fatigue, and that could potentially lead to the type of injuries the Jazz have mostly avoided this season — or at the very least it could lead to burn out.
"I've been taking a lot of pride in trying to not miss any games," Gobert said. "I mean, a lot of guys when they're a little tired, specifically on other teams, young guys too, they get a little tired, they take some games off and they want to make sure they have their legs for the next game. If I'm tired, if I'm beat up, I try to be there for my team and I try not to show it, because I need to be the anchor of the defense."
But with less than 20 games left in the regular season, the Jazz might have to make a choice: get the legs rested or go for every win.
Utah is still projected to finish with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference by about three or four games over the Phoenix Suns, mainly due to a forgiving closing schedule. That means the Jazz have some wiggle room if they feel they need to rest a player here and there or want to reduce some minutes on certain nights.
The Jazz are holding out O'Neale on Tuesday for rest. Joe Ingles will also miss the game due to left knee soreness.
"I think we're gonna have to be smart, because the goal is for us to be fresh for the playoffs," Gobert said. "At the same time, keep competing and, more importantly, keep getting better."
There are, after all, benefits to learning how to play through fatigue. The Jazz are hopeful they will make a deep playoff run — there will be plenty of times when they'll be a little winded during those games, too.
"Everybody's fatigued throughout the year; both teams are in the same situation," Snyder said. "As much as anything for us, there's a mental component. We have to make sure we're just sharper, talk more, more disciplined, execution, those types of things."