SALT LAKE CITY — Remember that night in January when Shaquille O'Neal awkwardly told Donovan Mitchell he wasn't good enough? Mitchell's confident response of "Aight" to the odd-timed criticism became a battle cry for Utah Jazz fans.
But while the timing was strange, Shaq's critique was far from unique.
And the Jazz finishing with the best record in the NBA hasn't quieted any of their doubters. In fact, it may have just added to the scrutiny. So how legitimate are the doubts? Let's examine.
The doubt: The Jazz can't handle switching defenses — like the ones they'll likely see in the playoffs.
Rudy Gobert is central to everything the Jazz want to do. Against standard drop-big defenses, he can easily get rolling to the rim, sucking in defenders and generating an all-you-can-shoot buffet for his teammates. Utah led the league in 3-pointers made (16.7 per game) all while taking the fewest midrange shots.
However, against teams that switch the 1-5 pick-and-roll — or run "black" in NBA terms — Utah's offense can get bogged down. That's led to playoff losses in the past under coach Quin Snyder. Oh, and remember last Monday's defeat to the Golden State Warriors (the same Warriors Utah might just play in the first round)? That's what Draymond Green and Kevon Looney were able to do to stifle Utah's attack.
"We've got to keep getting better and keep finding different ways to get easy baskets at the rim," Gobert said after that game. "We've got a lot of great shooters, we have a lot of the size, so we've got to make it harder on them to black on us, and punish them."
The good news: The Jazz are better equipped now than they've ever been to handle that type of defense. Mitchell, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson can all create open space themselves, and Bojan Bogdnaovic's surge late in the season has come via a strong drive game and post ups — both things critical to generating good looks when Gobert's rolls are getting stopped.
But Utah went just 1-6 when Mitchell attempted more than 25 field goals this season — showing that still isn't the best option to counter it.
"Oftentimes when the game is like that, you just got to move it," Snyder said. "And if you move it side to side, you get a chance to drive closeouts and in isolation. If you go by somebody, there's a good chance that because they're shifted so much you're gonna get another opportunity."
The doubt: Utah doesn't have a top-tier star
The Jazz don't have LeBron, or Kawhi, or KD, or Steph — or any of the other first-name-only players with championship pedigrees. It's mostly the reason the Jazz have been compared to the 2015 Atlanta Hawks, who had multiple All-Stars, no generational talents, and were unceremoniously swept in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The good news: While Donovan Mitchell isn't on LeBron's or KD's level, a team could do worse — much, much worse — to fill a crunch-time closer role.
After last year's record-breaking playoff performance, Mitchell assumed an ever larger share of the workload this season. He used over 30% of Utah's possessions, scored 26.4 points per game and assisted on over a quarter of his teammates' baskets.
After the All-Star break, he was ascending to an even higher level. In the 19 games he played before his ankle sprain, Mitchell averaged 29.6 points on 47% shooting and 40% from the 3-point line.
But while there should be no doubting Mitchell's playoff prowess — as a rookie, he led the Jazz to a first-round series upset win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and last season, he had two 50-point games in the first round loss to the Denver Nuggets — the fact is, the Jazz have only made it past the first round once with Mitchell leading the way.
He's better, his team is better, but until the Jazz make a deep run, the doubts are legitimate.
And there's also the question of health. Mitchell missed the last month of the regular season with a sprained ankle, and considering how tough the West is, he won't have the luxury of taking a few games to knock off any rust. The Jazz were able to hold on to the West's No. 1 seed without Mitchell, but it's hard to see them being a true contender if he's not at full strength.
The doubt: Rudy gets exposed in the playoffs!
The origin for this comes from one gif-inducing play against Steph Curry from 2017 and the 2018 second-round series against Houston when Chris Paul got Gobert to switch on him and then hit about a million midrange shots.
The good news: Out of all the doubts that are cast about the Jazz, this one is the most ridiculous.
In 2019, the Jazz played the Rockets again. But here's the thing: while the result was the same, the process was different. This time, Gobert kept the Jazz in games on the defensive end — Utah's offense just faltered. After that loss, the Jazz went and traded for Conley and Bogdanovic to strengthen the shooting around Gobert. They never once thought about trading the man in the middle.
Gobert averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds last season against the Nuggets last season. While Nikola Jokic scored a crucial bucket over him late in Game 7, having a MVP favorite score on you is hardly getting played off the court.
The basis of the doubt rests on the fact that Curry, Paul and Jokic were able to score on Gobert. If that's the standard were judging players, every single person is unplayable come playoff time.
The doubt: The Jazz always play well in the regular season only to flame out in the playoffs.
It's true that this season isn't the first time the Jazz have created some buzz with their regular season play. They've put up long winning streaks before and had good metrics only to see their time in the postseason be short lived.
For example: Utah has finished the regular season with a top-five net rating three times in the last four seasons. It doesn't have much to show for that.
The good news: The Jazz have never been this good. When factoring out garbage time, Utah has the No. 1 defense in the league, the No. 3 offense in the league and holds the best net rating by nearly five points. In fact, Utah's net rating of 11.2 puts them along the lines of Golden State's dynasty teams. Those Warriors teams proved their regular season numbers legitimate in the playoffs — now the Jazz will have their chance.
Until then, it's a fair critique.