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Forget the future, the Jazz may be ready to win now


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ATLANTA — Talen Horton-Tucker looked offended.

As the Jazz swingman got dressed following Utah's 139-116 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, he overhead Mike Conley get asked if the team's internal expectations had changed after its glowing start. Horton-Tucker glanced over as his face scrunched up, and he acted as if just the idea attacked his personal character (and his family's, too), and he robustly shook his head side to side.

Conley smiled when he noticed his teammates reaction, and then answered: "The expectations were always to win."

While just about everyone thought the Jazz had their eyes set on next year's draft, the players themselves surely didn't — especially once they started playing together. It didn't take long for the Jazz to figure out they weren't as bad as was being advertised.

"Everybody came into the year saying they thought we were gonna lose and stuff like that, but pretty much after the second or third day of camp, we kind of knew we're not gonna be bad," Horton-Tucker later said.

Jordan Clarkson, meanwhile, said he figured it out during the preseason when he saw the Jazz could defend as well as score. Whenever it was, if the Jazz knew they were going to be this good, they kept it close to the chest.

Ahead of the season, Conley said it was important for the team to develop a winning culture so that when the organization was ready to win at a high level, it was prepared.

He spoke as if that was a distant future; it may be closer than he originally led on.

"Yeah, maybe we should be looking closer to competing for a championship than the other way," Conley said.

They have some pretty good early evidence to back that up, too.

After Monday's win, the Jazz are now in first place in the Western Conference. Yep, the Jazz who were thought to be among the favorites in the race for Victor Wembanyama are at the top of their conference.

"I think guys just meshed, guys like each other, which is half the battle in the NBA," Kelly Olynyk said. "Guys have come together and having fun, playing the game, playing together, playing unselfish and having each other's back."

That's a stark contrast to last season's squad that folded amid chemistry issues and lofty expectations.

"We just like being around each other," Clarkson said.

It turns out that can lead to some pretty good basketball. The team has played extraordinary hard for new coach Will Hardy, and players like Lauri Markkanen, Clarkson, and Olynyk (and just about everyone else) have thrived in their new roles.

It's made for some, as Clarkson would say, "good vibes" on the team.

"High character guys who enjoy other people's successes," Olynyk said. "We've got a good group of older guys and younger guys, and guys who've been paid before some guys who are still young enough where they're not worrying about that stuff. And we land somewhere in the middle. Things are working out."

So far, at least.

The Jazz know there is still a long way to go. After all, a good record after 12 games doesn't make for a successful season. Still, the Jazz don't feel anything they've done is a surprise or unsustainable.

How do they keep it up? To them, it's simple: share the ball, make the right play, celebrate each other's success and play with an unrelenting energy. That's what they've done all season, and they don't have any plans on stopping.

"Going into the preseason, we didn't really know what to expect," Conley said. "We had basically like 14 guys who have never played together before. … You would have thought it took a little bit longer, and we've been able to connect a lot quicker than I think all of us probably expected."

And definitely faster than everyone on the outside expected.

Internal expectations might not have changed, but the ones on the outside have definitely started to shift.

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