The Utah Jazz will lose five of their first six games, with their sole win coming against the bumbling Los Angeles Lakers. They will have lost every other game by single digits, including an overtime barnburner in San Antonio, where George Hill has a little bit of a revenge game, dropping 36 points with Steph Curry-like efficiency. The Jazz know they are close, but the loss of Gordon Hayward to injury and integrating several new rotation players proves a confounding Rubik’s Cube to Quin Snyder, who looks even more like a serial killer this season, because now he knows his squad is on the cusp of elite play and it stresses him out that he has no idea how to get them to make that final tiny leap to contention.
Snyder had slotted in Joe Johnson to replace Hayward at small forward, and while his range and steady veteran know-how gave Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors room to operate (Gobert especially feasted on rebounds via Johnson’s numerous long-range misfires), something with this lineup is not quite right. It’s too conservative. One night, before the Jazz’s first and only trip to Madison Square Garden, Snyder is visited in a dream by a friend he lost long ago, who tells him he knows how to save the Jazz’s season. When Snyder wakes up he can’t quite remember the dream exactly, but inserts Dante Exum into the starting lineup to play alongside George Hill, while Rodney Hood slides down to small forward. With Hill’s game-managing and Exum’s long-armed disruption, the two-point guard lineup pays off in a big way and the Jazz go on an eight game winning streak, with six of those wins on the road.
The Jazz continue to win in ugly, physically punishing fashion. Gordon Hayward returns but is not his old self, struggling to reclaim his shooting touch. The team is almost on auto-pilot. New faces such as Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson go through the motions on the bench, make all the right movies, declare the Jazz the team to beat. Alec Burks has elevated his game, and not just his outside shot. Trey Lyles immediately gains Quin Snyder’s trust and closes out many fourth quarters alongside Gobert as a stretch big. Still, the Gobert-Favors frontline is the most intimidating in the league, Gobert averages 22 points and 10 boards a game in the month of December.
The Jazz beat the Golden State Warriors at home by a commanding (or so it seems against the Warriors) 14 points, behind Gordon Hayward’s breakout game of the season, scoring 43 points, half of them in the decisive second quarter run. Soon after they drop a close one in Oracle, but it’s obvious that they are one of the few teams that won’t simply allow the Warriors to bomb them into submission. The media starts to pay attention to the Jazz for the first time since the Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan feud. It’s now a given that they are dark horse contenders, and when not a single member of the Jazz is selected to the All-Star Game, they develop a new mean streak.