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“We Are Popping Together” | Utah Finds Its Stride In Return Home

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Sometimes, all it takes is coming home to put things back to normal. 

Following a six-game road trip that spanned 10 days, three time zones, and five teams currently in the playoff picture, the Jazz put on a show in their return to the comfortable confines of Vivint Arena. 

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert led a spirited effort as Utah took down the Lakers 122-109, a performance that has the Jazz back on track as they look to shape themselves for the upcoming postseason. 

Here are five things to know following the win:

1.) Donovan Mitchell Remains Elite
Still in search of his first all-NBA team, Mitchell continues to prove that he’s one of the elite guards in the league. 

One of the most prominent traits to have is that as the season comes to a close and wins and losses become that much more vital, the star players find ways to rise to the occasion — and that’s what Mitchell has done. 

Except for a struggle against Dallas where he tweaked his ankle, Mitchell had scored 25 points or more in eight of the past nine games. On Thursday night, he added to that number when he dropped 29 points on 11-of-22 shooting from the floor and 4-for-10 from the three-point territory. 

While his scoring is elite and always has been, Mitchell’s biggest strides have come as he’s transitioned from a shooting guard to a playmaker in Utah’s top-rated offense. He finished with seven assists, his fourth straight game with four assists or more. 

With Mitchell playing some of the best basketball of his career, it’s no wonder there’s optimism in the Utah locker room — and with five games to go, Mitchell will need to continue to be at his best.

2.) Rudy Gobert Makes Good On His Words
Following Tuesday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, a game in which Utah surrendered a 25-point second half lead, Gobert entered the media room postgame and solemnly answered all the questions thrown at him.

When asked about what needs to change for the Jazz, who were then in the midst of a five-game losing streak, Gobert was honest in his response. 

“It starts with me. … I got to be better,” he said. 

Just 48 hours later and Gobert more than lived up to those words. 

He finished with a massive double-double of 25 points, 17 rebounds, and two blocks, completely controlling the paint. While his defense is already sensational, Gobert’s offense was the more impressive part as he dominated with his back to the hoop, an aspect of his game that continues to improve.

“When they went small, I had a few opportunities to just get it down low and then see what happens,” Gobert said. “I’ve been putting in a lot of work, so when I get the ball down there, I show that good things can happen.”

3.) Role Players Return
While it’s always great when your stars play well, it’s even better when reinforcements arrive — and that’s what Utah got when Bojan Bogdanovic and Danuel House Jr. returned to the court on Thursday night.

After missing the past nine games, Bogdanovic returned to the starting lineup and immediately made his presence felt, knocking down his first shot three minutes into the game. Although he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well compared to his lofty standards, the mere threat of him being able to knock one down from deep opened up the driving lanes for his teammates as Utah’s offense thrived.

When Bogdanovic first went down, it was assumed that House would take his role in the rotation. That lasted for about six minutes as House, who started in Bogdanovic’s first missed game, went down with a knee injury. 

But his return was met with just as much gusto as Bogdanovic’s, considering House thrives as a perimeter defender capable of knocking down the three-pointer and getting out in transition. Combining him and Royce O’Neale gives Utah two long and lengthy wing defenders capable of impacting a game.

While the Jazz still aren’t at full strength, getting Bogdanovic and House is an excellent step in the right direction with the postseason approaching fast. 

“We’ve just got to prepare ourselves in our minds,” House said pregame. “We got a taste early. … Now we know how to handle ourselves and how to conduct things. We want to go back to the drawing board as a unit and make sure that we are popping together.”

4.) Utah Remains A Team With A Goal
A lot of talk has been made recently about the state of the Jazz, especially before Thursday’s victory over the Lakers in which Utah was on a five-game losing streak throughout the most important part of the season. 

Is there dissension within the team? Are cheap shots being thrown at one another in the media? Are the Jazz on the same page?

All of those questions — and any others surrounding the team’s mental state — were put to bed before and after Thursday’s victory.

Head coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, and Gobert — the team’s three leaders — addressed the rumors and, frankly, shot them down with relative ease. 

“I speak my mind,” Gobert said. “For me, it’s never about pointing fingers. … It’s just that I’m not perfect in the way I communicate. But I’m an emotional person, and I don’t like losing, so, obviously, I wish I would never say anything. I speak my mind, and it’s always about winning.”

While some might take Gobert’s honesty as a sign of trepidation within the locker room, Mitchell quickly shot that down.

“If we do that, we’ve got some bigger problems,” Mitchell said. “We have a group of guys that are seasoned, that know what this is and have been through ups and downs. A five-game losing streak, if that’s what breaks us, then that’s not who we think we are.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter what may be written in the media — the truth is that Utah is a team that’s never been more aligned.

“I think we are a team that is locked in as a group,” Mitchell said. “I don’t worry about where our team is at, as far as that goes. That’s more external than internal.”

5.) Western Conference Playoff Push
With five games left in the regular season, the battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference is as intense as its ever been.

Phoenix has all locked up the No. 1 seed while Memphis is secure in the No. 2 seed. Golden State and Dallas are tied at 48-39, but the Mavericks have the three-seed by virtue of a tiebreaker. Two games behind sit Utah and Denver, but the Jazz own the five-seed after winning the season series over the Nuggets. 

A positive for Utah is that they own the tiebreaker over Dallas, Golden State, and Denver (assuming the Jazz win the division) — but a negative is that they have the most challenging remaining schedule with games against Phoenix and Memphis.

Saturday’s showdown in the Bay Area against the Warriors is a game that will have massive postseason implications. A win would be a huge step forward in securing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while a loss would essentially mean the Jazz will be on the road. 

1.) Phoenix (62-14)
2.) Memphis (54-23) — 8.5
3.) Dallas (48-29) — 14.5
4.) Golden State (48-29) — 14.5
5.) UTAH (46-31) — 16.5
6.) Denver (46-31) — 16.5
7.) Minnesota (43-34) — 19.5
8.) LA Clippers (37-40) — 25.5
9.) New Orleans Pelicans (33-43) — 29
10.) San Antonio Spurs (31-45) — 31
11.) Los Angeles Lakers (31-45) — 31
12.) Sacramento Kings (28-49) — 34.5

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