The Jazz don't come up often in the championship conversation – despite All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert – because they seem to be one of the league’s top teams in the regular season that flame out in the postseason.
Last season, Utah finished No. 1 in the Western Conference with a league-best 52-20 record, but the season resulted in another early playoff exit. Utah hasn't gone further than the conference semifinals in the past five seasons.
Is that destined to be their future again? Despite a stellar start to the season, they have struggled lately. The Jazz have lost eight of their last ten games, including uncharacteristic losses against the 14-34 Houston Rockets at home and the 11-36 Detroit Pistons.
Utah's roster has been ravaged by COVID-19 and injury, leaving them a shell of their former self during the freefall.
In Monday's game against the league-leading Phoenix Suns, thee Jazz were without five starters – Donovan Mitchell (concussion protocol), Rudy Gobert (left calf strain), Mike Conley (right knee injury maintenance), Royce O’Neale (right knee tendonitis) and Bojan Bogdanovic (left finger avulsion fracture).
"We’re fooling ourselves saying we want to win a championship, having nights like tonight," Mitchell said after the Jazz's 126-116 loss to the Pistons on Jan.10.
The Jazz went from the No. 1 offense in December (119.6 points per 100 possessions) to the No. 9 offense in January (112.8 points). Utah currently has the No. 24 defense (115.1 points allowed per 100 possessions), down from their No. 6 ranking in December.
To be fair, the Jazz has been severely shorthanded at times, which has factored into their lack of rhythm and continuity. Gobert entered health and safety protocols on Jan. 6 after testing positive for the virus, alongside three other players and multiple assistant coaches. Mitchell has missed the last four games in the NBA's concussion protocol and is expected to miss more.
"We've been through a lot this last month," Rudy Gay said. "We're still going through a lot."
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The Jazz, however, aren't panicking just yet.
Utah is No. 4 in the Western Conference, but Jazz coach Quin Synder's not necessarily worried about his team's seeding. Instead, he's focused on building his team's mental toughness that will prove pivotal during a playoff push.
"You get confidence from playing hard and playing together. You get confidence from having an identity," Synder said. "I want to be the best version of ourselves at the right time."
By "right time," he means the playoffs.
"We have to have the mentality that we have to play well in the postseason, and whatever we are doing during the season is to get us better,” Bogdanovic said. "If we finish first, or fourth, or in the play-in, we have to be ready to play our best when it’s time. The main goal is to stay healthy and to get better."
The looming Feb. 10 trade deadline may help. The Jazz are in need of perimeter defender, but a single player isn't going to solve all of Utah's problems.
Utah needs to do some soul-searching to get back to true form. Mental focus and effort are the bare minimum to turn things around, Synder said: "Do it, you win. If you don't, you lose."
Contact Cydney Henderson at email@example.com. Find her on Twitter at @CydHenderson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Utah Jazz struggling now, but playoff performance will matter the most