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July 30, 2021

The Utah Jazz better get used to being the hunted

SALT LAKE CITY — The Pelicans flipped the script.

The Jazz have used third quarters this season to obliterate opponents. It’s become kind of predictable:

  • Opponent starts the game in a unique defense in an effort to slow down Utah 3-point attack.
  • The Jazz take some time to figure out the new scheme.
  • Utah adjusts at halftime.
  • Blowout commences.

“That’s what we’ve done — coming out of halftime we’ve raised our level on the defensive end and been able to get out in transition, and make people pay,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.

But on Monday, it was the Pelicans that raised their level, and it was the Jazz who paid. Zion Williamson scored 15 points in the third quarter as New Orleans outscored Utah 40-26.

The Jazz have built the best record in the league by consistently being able to adjust to whatever their opponents have thrown at them. If a team makes a bad defensive rotation, they’ll exploit it. If a team tries something new and cute, they’ll figure it out. But now, there is an added wrinkle: Getting a team’s best shot night in and night out.

“I think that’s to be expected when you are doing what we are doing,” Donovan Mitchell said. “We play free, playing with joy and teams want to kill that joy and rightfully so. We just got to be ready for it.”

In a season full of double-digit wins, the Jazz have now started a new chapter. They wanted to be taken seriously as a top team in the league — and now they are. Teams are making tweaks and raising its level to face the Jazz. That’s life as the No. 1 team in the league.

Utah has everyone’s attention. Now, how will they handle that?

“At the end of the day, I think we compete with ourselves,” Rudy Gobert said. “Now we are in a position when teams and players see us as a challenge and it brings out the best out of them every single night. I mean, every team that’s playing well when you play those kinds of teams, you know that you have to be ready, or else we’re gonna beat them by 30. So they come out and they play great and they play hard.”

Gobert likened it to playing a playoff game every night. And that presents quite the challenge. Suddenly, the Jazz are tasked at matching that kind of intensity and urgency every single game.

Teams are getting up to play them — talented ones. Take the Pelicans for example. It’s somewhat surprising New Orleans (now 15-19) has struggled as much as it has this season. Williamson is a beast, Brandon Ingram is a former All-Star, JJ Reddick is one of the all-time best shooters, Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe are better than serviceable guards. This team should flat out be better than its record. The Jazz brought that team out.

New Orleans wasn’t the first team to have a stellar game against Utah — and it certainly won’t be the last. That’s the burden of being at the top of the NBA standings. Mitchell said it’s up to the Jazz to not change anything about how they’ve been playing — both in style and urgency — as the season continues.

“Whether we’re the hunter or the hunted, we still gotta be that aggressive team,” Mitchell said.

Monday’s loss was painful not because of the call that went against the Jazz late or a poor offensive possession when they were down by just 3 points, but because they didn’t play up to their new reputation.

“It’s stuff that we can control and we knew this was how they were going to come out,” Mitchell said.

Them and everyone else. The Jazz better get used to being the hunted.

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