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Why this team has become the NBA's most improbable surprise

SALT LAKE CITY – Is anyone paying attention to what’s going on in Utah?

Seriously — are you? When you finish hate-watching Cleveland, buzzing past the latest Rockets game and checking in on Golden State, give the Jazz a look. On Thursday, Utah — fresh off a streak-busting stinker against the Hawksknocked off Dallas. It was the Jazz’s 10th win in their past 11 games and even with Friday’s loss to the Spurs, they’ve won 22 of their last 26, a stunning turnaround for a team that looked lottery-bound mid-January.

There is no more improbable story this season than Utah. Gordon Hayward defects in the offseason, Rudy Gobert goes down in early November — and here are the Jazz, tied for the seventh seed in the West, just 3½ games out of the third spot. UMBC knocking off Virginia made more sense.

Think about it. It’s fair to wonder if the Jazz even wanted to win. Put yourself in Dennis Lindsey’s shoes. The Jazz GM has a solid team, a frontline center and an exciting rookie to build around. But he needs another star. The top of the draft looks chock full of them. So maybe, with your team stinking up the joint in January, you sit Gobert a few more weeks and join the race to the bottom.

Utah’s Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio swarm Mavs guard Yogi Ferrell on Thursday night. (AP)

Earlier this week, I asked Jazz coach Quin Snyder if he ever had those conversations.

“Never,” Snyder said. “That’s just not how we do things. There was never any kind of suggestion of that. In the larger picture, we’re finding out who we are. This experience right now, having to compete for a spot, there is value in that. Things might happen — you can’t take anything for granted. The result ultimately isn’t the only reflection of where you are. The goal for me is to continue to improve. Not X wins, or how many in a row, but how can we keep getting better. It’s how we started the beginning of the year. It’s how we are now. We aren’t overthinking it.”

See, the Jazz are not particularly good at regressing. Some of that is Snyder. Utah won 38 games his first year, 40 in his second and 51 in his third. He’s got 41 so far this year, with 10 still to play. In a short time Snyder has established himself as an elite developmental coach. Hayward became an All-Star on his watch, Gobert has been molded into arguably the NBA’s best defensive player, while the Rookie of the Year could be Donovan Mitchell, an unheralded, late-lottery tweener from Louisville.

“He pays attention to every detail,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports. “Every little thing. Even at shootaround, if we’re walking through a play, if you’re standing in the wrong spot, he’ll yell at you, he’ll let you know so you are always locked in. That plays a part in development. When you are locked in all the time, you form habits.”

Still, in mid-January, the Jazz were bad. Rock bottom came on Jan. 22, when Utah traveled to Atlanta and got thumped by 14. Gobert — three games into his return from a knee injury — had six points. Ricky Rubio (1 of 8 from the floor) had one of his worst games of the season. The Hawks — not exactly an offensive juggernaut — connected on 48.2 percent of their shots.

Two nights later, in Detroit, Snyder addressed the team with a simple message: compete. It wasn’t enough just to play hard. The team had to compete. “I felt like after the game against Atlanta, our guys knew: We’re better than that,” Snyder said. “And you know what? It did.” The Jazz won a dogfight with the Pistons. Rubio was briefly knocked out of the game with a nasty cut above his left eye in the fourth quarter. A couple of pieces of tape, some glue, and Rubio was back, completing a double-double effort, spearheading a three-point win.

“That game,” Snyder said, “was a turning point.”

The easy answer to the Jazz resurgence? Gobert. The 7-foot-1 center is a defensive menace. Consider: When Gobert is on the court, Jazz opponents have an offensive rating of 99.8. When he’s off? 107.4. Utah lost its defensive identity in the 26 games Gobert missed. It rediscovered it when he came back.

There’s more, though. Snyder won’t say he saw this kind of run coming — no one will — but even as the losses piled up, there were signs of life. Mitchell was getting better. Joe Ingles, too. Royce O’Neal — an undrafted, 24-year-old rookie with a couple of years of international playing experience — found himself in the rotation.

“On some level, we had been improving more than we knew,” Snyder said. “Adversity makes you better. Competition shows you where you are weak. Our guys understood that. Our guys had to scrap and claw for any crumb of success. The biggest thing for me, for the staff, was to keep our spirit, and see how it goes.”

It’s gone well. Clearly this team has a ceiling; the need for an experienced wing scorer who can create his own shot will likely be highlighted in the playoffs. But the Jazz have a foundation again. Gobert is 25. Rubio, who needed a few months to adjust to the Jazz system, is 27. Jae Crowder, too. Mitchell is 21 — and all signs point to him developing into a star. The Jazz will have some cap flexibility this summer — Derrick Favors and Dante Exum are Utah’s most notable free agents — and have a deep and experienced front office with a proven track record of finding top talent deep in the draft.

Gordon Hayward’s exit knocked the Jazz down. As the season winds down, one thing is clear: Utah is up again.

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