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SALT LAKE CITY — As the mind-numbing NBA regular season winds down to the final weeks, attention turns to which teams deserve serious consideration as championship contenders.
Based on the standings, the obvious choices are the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. Looking eastward, include the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and new-look Philadelphia 76ers along with the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.
And the Utah Jazz? Anybody?
Nope, not many this year. The Jazz barely register a blip among national media experts, assuming that's the appropriate word.
For proof, look at the discussion during halftime of Sunday afternoon's game with the Suns that was broadcast nationally on ABC. All four commentators downplayed the Jazz.
In a contradiction, Stephen A. Smith conceded the Jazz are title contenders but added: "I just look at them and say there's Donovan Mitchell and no one else I can depend on."
Michael Wilbon noted the Jazz need playoff success "to prove to us that they are a serious contender." Host Mike Greenberg believes more in the Memphis Grizzlies, whom the Jazz dispatched in the first round last year.
Only one season removed from producing the regular-season's best record, the Jazz have a host of doubters. Think a modified version of the adage "Fool me once, shame on me."
Put all of them in the Shaquille O'Neal camp of non-believers. Slightly more than one year ago the NBA legend let the basketball world call out Mitchell and, by extension, his team.
In January 2021, after Mitchell poured in 36 points to lead the Jazz over the New Orleans Pelicans, O'Neal in a postgame interview on national television told the multiple All-Star he couldn't elevate the Jazz.
"I said tonight that you are one of my favorite players, but you don't have what it takes to get to the next level," O'Neal said. "I said it on purpose because I wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?"
To his credit, Mitchell rolled with the criticism, going on to say, "I've been hearing that since my rookie year. I'm just going to get better and do what I do."
The truth is, without Mitchell at his best, the Jazz can't and won't get to that proverbial next level. Even with Mitchell at his best they still might not get there.
No doubt, the Jazz have a long way to go before gaining converts. Exiting from the playoffs in the second round, as they did last season, won't garner any respect.
O'Neal's singular rebuke of Mitchell last season was unfair, particularly for a then 24-year-old undersized guard. In last year's playoffs, Mitchell averaged 32.3 points, 4.2 assists and 5.5 assists over 10 games, several of which he played on a bum ankle.
Too bad the impressive statistics ring hollow in defeat, as they always do. But what matters is the Jazz lost four consecutive games after taking a 2-0 lead against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Compounding the problem, Los Angeles was without perennial all-star Kawhi Leonard for the final two games. The narrative is the Clippers advanced without their best player.
The carryover is the Jazz face intense pressure to rectify the situation this year. Glossary regular-season records are empty calories without postseason success.
Combining the strong regular-season performances with the playoff flame-outs, the Jazz seek redemption come this April. Any team with two All-Stars, including Rudy Gobert, ought to make at least one conference finals.
And, remember, all season players and coach Quin Snyder have preached the importance of peaking at the right time. With this team, seeing is believing.