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Utah's Push into Playoff Picture Proves There Is Value in Doing Things Right Way

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMarch 30, 2016

Utah Jazz's Shelvin Mack drives past Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 20, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash/Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In an NBA so littered with strategic losing and tanking warfare, there is more honor than ever in making the playoffs.

It means you put forth an effort to compete on a nightly basis.

It means you didn't just collect your participation trophy and accept handouts in the form of lottery balls to improve your future lot in life.

So even though legends will never be built on the splendor of earning an eighth seed, real inspiration can be found in the valleys of the standings.

It's why it's fun to prop up some mostly anonymous soul, such as Shelvin Mack in Utah, as an example of all that is right about this time of year.

The Jazz are getting quite good, which they might well show everyone Wednesday night in handing the Golden State Warriors a rare defeat. Utah has won eight of 10, reached the West's top eight and is playing as if it doesn't intend to drop out again—which is a major problem for some team among Dallas, Houston and Portland that won't make the playoff cut.

It's honestly not unreasonable to think the Jazz, undercut so many times by so many different injuries this season, can—in their healthier and Mack-driven state—spring a first-round playoff series upset of a titan such as San Antonio or Oklahoma City.

Yet, what Mack is doing (averaging a career-high 5.6 assists per game while shooting 44.6 percent in 20 games with Utah) already is worth heralding on the smaller scale of the playoff chase.

He is rightfully proud of it.

"I feel like I've done a great job," he told Bleacher Report this week. "I feel like I deserve it. Hard work pays off. But I've still got to keep pushing."

Milwaukee, WI - MARCH 20:  Shelvin Mack #8 of the Utah Jazz is introduced before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 20, 2016 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

It's a lesson in what it takes to carve out a career in any highly competitive field. Consider how many guys around Mack's 6'3" stature can flat out play. To survive in the league requires a level of professionalism that other talented guys just don't have.

Mack was Atlanta's third-string point guard behind Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder. Coach Mike Budenholzer had made a strategic decision to use more size at shooting guard this season, eliminating a repeat of the decent run Mack got off the ball last season. There was neither light nor tunnel.

The exact words that Mack uses as he reflects: "Being stuck like I was in Atlanta."

So often when people feel stuck in life, they stagnate or surrender. It's easy to blame others or give up on yourself.

If Mack hadn't been mentally strong enough to hang in there during his limbo, he would not have been ready to step up for the Jazz when the call came at the trade deadline.   

"Especially in the NBA, opportunities come quick," Mack said. "Any opportunity might come any given day. Somebody might get hurt. You've got to be ready to take advantage of that, because it doesn't last long."

Mack, 25, has been unemployed often enough in the NBA (let go twice by the Wizards, once by the 76ers) to remind people all the time what happens in the league every single year with the draft: "At least 30 players are leaving; 30 new ones are coming."

Mack simply gets it. After having reached consecutive NCAA title games as Butler's point guard under Brad Stevens, he has a great feel for running an offense without overdoing anything, and he understands the difference between forging a career and just believing you're a baller.

It's already obvious the affection that Jazz coach Quin Snyder has on Mack's steady hand and effort.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 5:  Head coach Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz and Shelvin Mack #8 of the Utah Jazz talk during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on March 5, 2016 at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

With Mack replacing Raul Neto and Trey Burke, the Jazz are learning to execute with poise, not panic, as the shot clock winds down, to reformat the offense when it gets misaligned. Mack's 40 percent shooting from the three-point line has helped, as have the underappreciated talents of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.

Utah hasn't won a playoff game since 2010. Chasing this shot is an opportunity for the young Jazz team to redefine what it's like to stay in the moment.

"Not just every game, but every minute of every game," Snyder said. "That level of focus is something we're learning to do."

There is virtue in what Utah is building, in gaining "something that helps us find out something else about ourselves as a team," Snyder said.

By the same token, there should be an appreciation for what the Trail Blazers have done with their open-hearted, overachieving season or the Mavericks have done in refusing to take the easy way out and pursue keeping a top-seven protected draft pick.

If the final standings were based on righteousness, it would be Houston, with its Dwight Howard-James Harden wastefulness, that misses the playoffs. But Dallas' injury issues are making it increasingly difficult for the Mavericks to overcome the Rockets' talent.

These days, so many say it's foolish to try too hard to make the playoffs only to be blitzed by a high seed and stuck with a lower draft position.

So it's admirable when clubs can look past that and appreciate what it's like to do things the right way in their organizations. That way, meaningful growth happens alongside whatever good luck you might receive.

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Maybe Dante Exum comes back next season from his ACL repair looking like he's already ready to break through.

Exum is hanging around the team these days, seeing Mack doing good things for these guys. Whether Mack ($2.4 million team option for 2016-17) proves to be too much a pro's pro just to be bumped aside next season by an emerging uber-athlete, the 20-year-old Exum is learning from the stability Mack is providing the Jazz.

That said, Mack has been with the Jazz for more than a month, but it's honestly far from a stable situation. The Jazz returned over the weekend from five consecutive road games, except that doesn't mean much for the guy in temporary Salt Lake housing.

"Everybody's like, ‘Yes! We finally get to go home,'" Mack said, chuckling. "I'm like, 'I'm going back…to a different hotel.'"

No, it's not exactly a rags-to-riches tale.

It is real life, persevering in the low end of the playoff bracket.

It's not great, and it's a long way from glory, but we should be thankful when we see people doing good things.

There is one challenge, and one challenge only, available to pursue in this moment for the Jazz: making the playoffs.

The effort itself is worth celebrating.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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