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.
However, for reasons no one can quite deduce, Derrick Favors seems to be the odd man out on the team and it has affected both his mood and production. Boris Diaw calls it a “malaise” and that he just needs to spend less time watching Stranger Things over and over again on Netflix. Certain higher-ups in Utah begin negotiations with the Pacers for a Monta Ellis/Derrick Favors swap, but wiser heads (including Quin Snyder who says Derrick Favors is his “ride or die” friend) eventually prevail and the trade deadline passes with no drama. As if it never happened, the Jazz begin rolling again. They finish the season strong, and strangely, the only team they didn’t beat at least once were the Sacramento Kings, who for some reason always rose to the challenge against them.
When the Jazz’s first round match-up against the miraculously fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks is mostly relegated to NBA TV, the Jazz take this as another slight, and in a very disrespectful fashion, take a broom and sweep Saint Dirk Nowitzki out of the playoffs. Mark Cuban is fined for yelling obscene things in French as Rudy Gobert sinks the series clinching-free throws.
In the second round, the Jazz match up against the San Antonio Spurs, who own the NBA’s best record with 69 wins and just made short work of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Spurs take the first game easily. Charles Barkley is heard saying that Utah plays the right way (large lineup, slow pace), but they lack courage. Though this makes no sense, it lights a fire under the Jazz and they take the next three games, pushing San Antonio to the brink.
The Spurs are comfortable on the brink however, and respond by taking the following two games, so the series heads back to the shadow of the Alamo for a final reckoning. The Spurs take a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter behind yet another masterful Kawhi Leonard performance, but everything falls apart for the normally-composed Spurs. Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge get into a shoving match with each other and are both ejected. Patty Mills accidentally scores on his own basket. Tim Duncan watches from the cheap seats in dad jeans. His expression is blank. The Jazz rally and eke out a six-point win. Somehow they’re going to the Western Conference Finals. Even the talking heads and pundits who have doubted them all season are starting to feel like this team has destiny on its side.
The Golden State Warriors, who rested their starters the last 15 games of the season, cruised to the No. 2 seed. The Megadeath lineup (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, Green) is still basically unstoppable, but the lack of depth has truly taken its toll. Anderson Varejao is useless, David West is too old and slow, Shaun Livingston has regressed, and Zaza Pachulia does his best, but he’s not Andrew Bogut in the middle. Patrick McCaw and a newly (somewhat) focused JaVale McGee give the Warriors something off the bench, but Utah’s reserves thoroughly outperform their Golden State counterparts. There are no epic collapses or even interesting games. What seemed insane at the beginning of the season now makes a certain amount of sense. Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward, the nominal faces of the franchise, lead the Jazz to an improbable, yet no-longer-unimaginable series victory in six games. Kevin Durant shakes Quin Snyder’s hand very quickly and goes off to have alone time. Draymond Green throws a chair and somehow hits a Jazz fan in the groin, earning him a five-game suspension to start the 2017-18 season and a $20,000 fine. The Jazz head to the Finals, where the Cleveland Cavaliers and the King — who is dying to repeat — await.
In the lowest rated Finals since the 2005 matchup between the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs, the Jazz, without drama, beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games, losing only the opening game in Cleveland. This is just one of those years where the LeBron magic isn’t clicking on all cylinders, and without his example, the rest of the team stumbles at every turn. It’s a perfect storm. Dan Gilbert writes an angry note in Comic Sans about the series afterwards. The Jazz hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy and the world is stunned, but they soon rationalize it as just another sign of the impending apocalypse.
John Stockton walks into the locker room to congratulate them on their win, but only Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw seem to know who he is.