SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Ingles was asked the question that's been on just about every Utah Jazz fan's mind this week leading up to the playoffs.
How is Donovan Mitchell looking?
"He looks great. He's a beautiful young man," said Ingles, expertly dodging the question.
Not exactly what the world wanted to know, but, alas, that'll have to do for now. The mystery of Mitchell's status for the playoff will have to wait. But rest assured Ingles is at the top of the list (tied with just about everyone else in Utah) of people who want to see Mitchell back and healthy.
"Playing point guard for three weeks was not it," Ingles said, only semi-joking. "Everyone decided to full-court pressure every game, which I've never seen before. I was ready for a break."'
He and the rest of the NBA.
Pandemic life has all been about adapting. For NBA players that has meant nearly constant testing, sacrificing team meals together, and staying in hotel rooms for hours upon hours during long road trips. The limited number of fans in arenas made atmospheres feel forced, at best — and just pure fake, at worst.
First world problems, sure, but it still made for what many players felt was a long, boring and tedious season.
"This season is straight about quantity. It's not about the quality of play," eighth-year Atlanta Hawks wing Solomon Hill told the Washington Post. "It's kind of like: 'What are we trying to accomplish here? Are we just trying to finish the season? Are we really trying to put our best foot forward, our best athletes on the court, and give a quality service to the game?' And it's definitely been a lack of that."
When you look at the league as a whole, Hill's argument holds some water. Injuries to star players seemed to be a regular occurrence as games were piled on top of each other in order to play as many as possible during a condensed season. Players felt the fatigue quickly; and by February, everyone's eyes appeared to be fully locked in on the playoffs.
The secret to Utah's success this season can partially be credited to how they were able to handle all of the oddities to the season. Were the never-ending tests monotonous? Were the road restrictions annoying? They'd answer those with a resounding yes.
"It was a disruptive year, obviously, with the COVID and the rules and the testing and all that," Ingles said.
The secret to success? Treating all the new challenges almost like they treat a game: They acted like it was all a competition.
"It was a constant kind of theme of us trying to compete in everything we were doing," Ingles said. "Whether it would be wearing a mask on the plane ... it's like you're just competing on every level of everything this year. I think we proved we did a good job with everything that went on and how we played."
That level of detail and focus translated to the court with ease. It became a routine: test, shootaround, game plan, play.
While some players and teams were worrying about the lack of distractions that made the season feel overly long and stretched out, the Jazz focused in even more. The league's best record followed.
"I think this year we were a bit more locked in on it," Ingles said. "Every game we were focused on what the game plan was, we wanted to win every game possible. We were trying to do that."
It helped, too, that they had a vision of who they could become.
There's no downplaying the importance the time spent in the bubble last summer was for this Jazz team. That's when the seeds of the offense that would go on to make more 3s per game than any team in history were planted; it's when All-Stars Rudy Gobert and Mitchell were able to fully bury the hatchet of what had been a tumultuous break; and it's when the Jazz lost a 3-1 lead in the playoffs. All those things combined to make this season possible.
"Maybe losing like 3-1 is a kick in the stomach that you need, to like, if we want to be the team that we envisioned," Ingles said.
What did he and the Jazz see? A team that could wreck the league with elite outside shooting while still having a top defense with Gobert as the anchor. Sometimes visions are a bit optimistic — in this case, it was spot on. The Jazz got the No. 1 seed with that play, but it was taxing. So having two days off to begin the week was a needed breather.
"Having the two days was was nice, but it was also really refreshing to come back in today and get some work in and kind of flip to playoff mode," Ingles said. "Obviously we don't know who we're playing, but just more concentrating on our team and what we want to do."
That's what they've done all season. It's worked pretty good so far.