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'We are fooling ourselves': Jazz don't look like contender following Gobert-less road trip

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looses control of the ball as Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Detroit.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) looses control of the ball as Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio, Associated Press)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — With each pause, you could feel Donovan Mitchell's frustration growing. His sentences were slow and thoughtful as he tried to find the right words to sum up how he was feeling after his team's embarrassing second-half collapse on Monday.

With a sigh, he finally settled on something.

"We are fooling ourselves if we say we're gonna win a championship and we have a night like tonight," Mitchell said.

The hard truth for Jazz fans? There's been plenty of nights like that this season. Stunning losses to the New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers — which came just two days prior — come immediately to mind.

On Saturday, after the loss to Indiana, Mitchell was animated and forceful, and stopped just short of calling out his teammates for a lack of effort on the defensive side of the ball. After Monday, he almost seemed defeated.

The Jazz surrendered 78 second-half points to one of the worst offenses in the league. Utah couldn't stop drives, were slow to rotate on defense and surrendered practice-level 3-pointers all half. There was finger pointing, looks of confusion and an all-around poor effort.

Utah had some built-in excuses for the performance, namely Rudy Gobert didn't play due to being in the league's COVID protocols.

"I don't think there's any mystery if the Defensive Player of the Year is not on the floor that you're not going to be as good defensively," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.

That just meant the current three-game slide hasn't revealed anything new.

It's no secret the Jazz can't defend at a high level without Gobert near the rim. It was the case last season when the Los Angeles Clippers pulled him out to the corner and forced Utah's perimeter players to actually defend. Spoiler: They didn't.

It's been the case this season, too, when the Jazz have given up career nights whenever Gobert sits. On Friday, it was Fred VanVleet going off; a day later, it was Domantas Sabonis; Cade Cunningham had his turn Monday.

"I think our whole group knows how people perceive our team and how they can attack us," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.

Gobert doesn't get played off the court in the playoffs, teams just scheme to get him into a spot where he's not as effective. It's the same concept as a team trying to get the ball out of the hands of Chris Paul, or face guarding Steph Curry. For the Jazz to counter that, they have to be able to at least put up some fight at the point of attack. That's why Monday felt so damning.

They couldn't — or at least didn't.

"We've been playing together long enough to know where we need to be and in those situations," Conley said.

And long enough for it to be just a further confirmation of a yearslong problem: Utah's perimeter defense hasn't been good enough to actually contend.

As Gobert has taken the national heat for Utah's playoff failures, it's been the Jazz's perimeter defense that has been the true culprit in recent postseason defeats to the Denver Nuggets and Clippers. In a league dominated by dynamic scoring wings and guards, you have to be able to guard on the perimeter.

"When you don't have Rudy Gobert out there, our intensity has to turn up," Mitchell added. "We did it against Denver (in Gobert's first missed game of the road trip). It's there, but if we don't do it consistently, this is going to happen."

That Denver game, though, is the one that feels like the outlier. The Jazz have consistently struggled without Gobert — be it if he's sitting out or sitting in the corner. Bojan Bogdanovic and Eric Paschall were the best two on-ball defenders against the Pistons in the second half — that says a lot about the current state of the Jazz.

If there is good news, it's that the season doesn't end in January. Every contender has some flaws, and it'll be a race to see who can overcome or at least manage those come playoff time.

"Our goal is to be the best version of ourselves at the end of the year," Snyder said, "and this game needs to help focus us."

The Jazz have made it clear since training camp that the regular season is being used to get ready for the playoffs. The No. 1 seed would be nice, sure, but it's not necessarily a goal to check off. They want to make sure they are matchup proof (which, offensively, they've become) and healthy for when the games really matter come April.

The Jazz still have time to fix things. Whether that be through a trade, some internal improvement, or finding someone on the free agent/buyout market that can come into help. Utah traded Miye Oni earlier this month to open up a roster spot to have the flexibility to add pieces, if needed.

It appears they'll be needed, or the Jazz might just keep on fooling themselves.

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