Sunday, March 26, 2017
Skyhook Sunday: The Utah Jazz are going back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012
For the first time since the 2011-12 season, the Utah Jazz are going back to the NBA playoffs, clinching a playoff spot earlier today. As it stands, the Jazz are 44-29 and the 4th seed in the Western Conference standings, with the 5th seeded Los Angeles Clippers at 44-31 and the 6th seeded Oklahoma City Thunder at 41-31. If the playoffs were to start today, the Jazz would face off against the Clippers and have home court advantage.
With a playoff spot now clinched, the Jazz now have to worry about seeding. With the 3rd seeded Houston Rockets 7 games ahead, the best the Jazz can realistically expect to do is hold down the fort at the 4th spot and secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Doing so would give the Jazz an excellent chance of advancing in the first round series and likely set up a second round series with the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, who are 59-14 right now.
The remaining 9 games for the Utah Jazz are vs. New Orleans on March 27, at Sacramento on March 29, vs. Washington on March 31, at San Antonio on April 2, vs. Portland on April 4, vs. Minnesota on April 7, at Portland on April 8, at Golden State on April 10, and vs. San Antonio on April 12.
Intuitively, the games against the Spurs and Warriors stand out, but what's good for the Jazz is that with those games coming so late in the season, there are good odds that the Spurs and Warriors will be resting their players, so it's very possible for the Jazz to take two out of those three games. The home games against New Orleans, Washington, Portland, and Minnesota should all be wins, leaving the games at Sacramento and at Portland as perhaps the toughest games just because those are teams that will not be resting anybody. This all means that the Jazz should be able to go 6-3 down the stretch for sure and possibly even go 7-2, which should be good enough for them to secure the 4th seed.
What's made the Jazz so dangerous this season is their versatility and weapons. Gordon Hayward is the star of this team, averaging 21.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, but he's gotten a lot of help from the likes of George Hill (16.9 points and 4.1 assists), Rodney Hood (12.8 points), and Rudy Gobert (13.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks). The Jazz can beat you out on the wing, they can beat you down on the block, they defend both the perimeter and interior really well, and are young, which means they play with a lot of energy.
What's crazy about this team is that they are 29th in the NBA in points per game (100.3), but also 3rd in defensive rating (102.5). It's very rare to find a team that is so polarized, but it seems to be working out for them just fine. What allows the Jazz to still be successful despite this chasm is the fact that it isn't like they don't have guys who can score. Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, and George Hill can all score the rock from the perimeter while Rudy Gobert does a great job at playing the garbage man underneath for put backs and alley-oop dunks. The Jazz have guys who can score and so while they may not score as many points, it's not like they are a team incapable of scoring. They just like to play at a slower pace and let their defense be what leads them to victory.
In terms of how deep this team can go, I think the Jazz have a great shot at getting out of the first round if they get the 4th seed and clinch home court advantage. Salt Lake City is a really difficult place to win on the road and so if the Jazz are able to clinch home court advantage, I like their chances to advance regardless of the opponent. The Clippers and Thunder are really good teams, but I don't see either team advancing to the second round against a Jazz team with home court advantage. The Jazz are THAT good at home.
As far as a second round match up with the Warriors or Spurs, I think odds are high that is where it would end for the Jazz. Of course, you never know what can happen with injuries and we've also seen the whole dynamics of a series change when a team finds a way to steal one game on the road. That said, smart money has to take the Warriors or Spurs in a series against the Jazz.
What's important to understand if you are the Utah Jazz is that by clinching a playoff spot, they've had a really impressive season already. This is a young team that is hoping to make a lot of noise in the future and making the playoffs is the first step in achieving this goal. The Jazz are not a championship level team right now but all signs point to them being one in the seasons to come. Their front office has done a really good job of assembling the right talent through the draft and bringing in guys that are willing to buy in to the Utah Jazz way.
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This article also appears on my Utah Jazz blog. Click here to check it out.