Analysis: Jazz, Spurs off to surprising fast starts in West

Oct 31, 2022, 11:09 AM | Updated: Nov 1, 2022, 9:08 am
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, top, speaks with Spurs forward Keldon Johnson during a...

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, top, speaks with Spurs forward Keldon Johnson during a timeout in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

(AP Photo/Darren Abate)

              Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) goes to the basket as Memphis Grizzlies guard David Roddy (27) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
            
              Denver Nuggets guard Christian Braun (0) blocks a shot by Utah Jazz guard Malik Beasley (5) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
            
              San Antonio Spurs' Keldon Johnson (3) shoots against Minnesota Timberwolves' Rudy Gobert (27), Anthony Edwards (1) and Jaden McDaniels during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 107-98. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
            
              San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, top, speaks with Spurs forward Keldon Johnson during a timeout in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
            
              Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (11) and Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr., rear, battle for a loose ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
            
              Utah Jazz's Jordan Clarkson (00) celebrates after making a 3-pointer with teammate Mike Conley (11) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

DENVER (AP) — A year ago, Mike Conley Jr. was on a team mentioned as a championship contender. This year, the Utah Jazz aren’t in that conversation.

That doesn’t change Conley’s approach.

“We’re trying to win every day,” Conley said.

So far, the Jazz are winning more days than not. And two weeks into the NBA season, there are some surprises — some good, some bad, with the Jazz finding themselves on the more fun side of that ledger.

Conley and the Jazz are off to a 6-2 start after Monday’s win over Memphis. Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs are 5-2, which matches the team’s best start since they were 6-1 on the way to winning the NBA title in the 2013-14 season.

If the Jazz and Spurs were tanking, they’re definitely doing it wrong.

Not even the lure of landing the winning lottery ticket that will provide 7-foot-3 French teen Victor Wembanyama — who has skills often compared to Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dirk Nowitzki — is enough to get the Jazz and Spurs to try and not win. Quite the contrary. They’re playing hard, playing the right way, playing defense and it’s working.

“They’re young enough they don’t know any better,” Popovich said of his squad. “They just keep playing hard. … They’re pretty much obeying the basketball gods, doing all the simple things that help win games.”

They should be feeling pretty happy in a couple other cities, too. Cleveland was 5-1 entering Monday, as was Portland. On the flip side of the surprise coin — Brooklyn was 2-5, the Los Angeles Lakers started 0-5 before getting their first win, and Miami is 2-5 entering a game Tuesday against Golden State. The reigning champs aren’t exactly setting the world ablaze either, off to a 3-4 start.

It’s early. There’s almost a whole season left to go. But San Antonio and Utah are surprising just about everybody so far — well, everybody except themselves.

“We just do our job,” Conley said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what people say.”

It wasn’t uncommon to think the Jazz and Spurs might be among the teams that vie to be among the odds-on favorites for Wembanyama (the bottom three teams each have a 14% probability to land the No 1 pick). The Spurs are extremely young and feature a lineup consisting of hardly household names. The Jazz spent the summer trading away three of their biggest pieces in Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Bojan Bogdanovic.

“For some reason, the league goes, ‘Oh, Utah is tanking because they got rid of Donovan and Rudy and Bogdanovic,'” Nuggets coach Michael Malone recently said. “Tell Mike Conley that. Tell Jordan Clarkson that. Tell Lauri Markkanen that. Those guys are NBA players and have played in a lot of big games. They’re playing hard. They’re getting out and running and they’re defending.”

Credit should go to Utah coach Will Hardy, who was mentored by Popovich. Among the lessons Hardy picked up from Popovich — his former boss in San Antonio, before Hardy spent last season as an assistant in Boston — was the art of fostering relationships.

“He taps into that human element very, very well,” said Hardy, who spent 11 seasons with Popovich and the Spurs, including five as an assistant coach. “For all of his greatness from an X’s-and-O’s standpoint or an in-game coaching standpoint, it’s all the stuff he does in-between games, on the human side, that for me separates him.”

Hardy’s team has quickly picked up on the building cohesion part. An illustration: The Jazz all recently gathered in a room in New Orleans during a trip and “just chilled, and had fun,” explained Malik Beasley, who was acquired as part of the massive deal this offseason that sent Gobert to Minnesota. On plane rides, they’ve been known meet in a group to chat and break down game film.

“We have a great vibe,” Beasley added. “It’s going to be fun to go to where we want to go to.”

Which, so far, is north in the standings, not south.

“We’re tired of people being surprised,” Beasley said. “We’re a good team, too.”

The Jazz remain a huge longshot to win the NBA title this season, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The same applies to Orlando, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Houston, Sacramento, Detroit and San Antonio. All of those clubs are the ones expected to be in the running for the No. 1 pick and the chance at Wembanyama.

Not that the Spurs and Jazz have been paying any attention. Or caring what others believe. Popovich has a bunch of kids playing like seasoned vets.

“I don’t think they even know what the capital of Texas is,” Popovich cracked. “But I don’t care.”

Added Spurs guard/forward Keldon Johnson, who was part of the team that won Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games in 2021: “We’re playing great team basketball. We’re making each other better. It’s fun playing basketball that way.”

___

AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds and AP freelance writer Mike Cranston contributed.

___

AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/nba and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Canada's Felix Auger Aliassime, right, celebrates with teammate after defeating Australia's Alex de...
Associated Press

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

MALAGA, Spain (AP) — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him. A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup. “I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said. Canada won […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Arizona State hires Oregon’s Dillingham as football coach

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State hired Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham on Sunday, making the 32-year-old the youngest head football coach in a Power Five conference. “He brings the energy, knowledge and appreciation of our state and university that is valued by all of us,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said in a […]
1 day ago
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell looks on in the first half of an NCAA college football game agai...
Associated Press

AP source: Wisconsin negotiating with Cincinnati’s Fickell

Wisconsin is negotiating a deal with Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell to try to make him the Badgers’ next head coach, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Sunday. The deal was not done, but Fickell has emerged as the leading candidate and discussions between the school and Bearcats’ head coach were […]
1 day ago
United States' Mikaela Shiffrin competes during a women's World Cup slalom skiing race Sunday, Nov....
Associated Press

Shiffrin’s bid for 6th win on home snow off to good start

KILLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Overall World Cup champion Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States was fastest in the first run of a slalom on Sunday as she remained on course for a third straight win in the discipline and a sixth on home snow. Cheered on by a passionate crowd, Shiffrin posted a time of […]
1 day ago
England's Marcus Rashford speaks to the media during a press conference at at Al Wakrah Sports Comp...
Associated Press

Rashford thinks booing of England at World Cup unnecessary

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — For Marcus Rashford, the jeers from England’s fans really weren’t necessary. He already knew the 0-0 draw with the United States wasn’t good enough. Certainly not for a team with genuine ambitions of winning the World Cup for the first time since its one and only tournament success in 1966. And […]
1 day ago
Brazil's forward Richarlison, left, scores the second goal for his team during the World Cup group ...
Associated Press

Without Neymar, Brazil takes on Switzerland at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — There’s no Neymar facing Switzerland at the World Cup on Monday. Just Richarlison. And Vinicius Junior. And Raphinha. And Rodrygo. And all the rest of the star-laden options in a deep and talented Brazilian squad lacking its most famous player. “Each and every one is super skilled, even the center backs […]
1 day ago
Analysis: Jazz, Spurs off to surprising fast starts in West