What do you consider this dominant jazz run?
ONE MONTH IN Steve Kerr had seen enough of the NBA season to make a pretty great statement about Utah jazz.
The Jazz had just sacked Kerr’s Golden State Warriors, leading by three quarters by 36 points and taking a 127-108 win on Jan. 23. It was Utah’s eighth straight win, and questions arose as to whether the jazz was actually good enough to be included in conversations about the league’s title contenders.
“They are trying to win a championship right now and I think they can,” said Kerr. “They are where we were three or four years ago.”
More than a month later, jazz is still rolling. They have won 22 of their last 24 games – 20 in double digits, including the 114-89 defeat of the low-injury champions Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Utah has the best record in the NBA at 26-6 and is the only team in the league to be in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive terms.
But is jazz a real threat to beating either (or both) of the LA teams in the playoffs? Kerr’s response was fairly positive, if not representative of a consensus view in the league, and he wasn’t the only coach who compared jazz to a current championship team.
Brad Stevens, just before his Boston Celtics lost his Boston Celtics in Utah on February 9, at 14, said the jazz was “the closest team to the ’14 Spurs” he’d seen in terms of intelligence and selflessness manifested in brilliant ball movements .
Those Spurs had three surefire Hall of Famers with extensive championship experience in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, not to mention a budding superstar in Kawhi Leonard. One of the main reasons rival Boy Scouts and business leaders remain skeptical about jazz is because they lack the proven star power that the favorite Brooklyn networks of Lakers, LA Clippers, and Eastern Conference provide.
Jazz guardian Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert, who are harmonious and happy after clearing chemical problems before the bubble and signing lucrative, long-term contract extensions before training camp, form undoubtedly one of the best duos in the NBA. Mitchell is a dynamic goalscorer and developing playmaker who has shown he can face the occasion in the playoffs, while Gobert is recognized as the NBA’s most dominant defensive presence and as a screener, roller, finisher and a critical part of the offensive in Utah, rebounders apply.
But Utah’s star pairing is not viewed by league insiders as being on the same level as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as Leonard and Paul George, or as Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. In the NBA, Star Power wins playoff series – with a few exceptions.
“You’re sort of going back to the old Detroit team that won it,” said a longtime Western Conference scout, referring to the 2003-04 Pistons, whose only All-Star that season was Ben Wallace, a defensive one dominating tall man and Detroit’s sixth leading scorer. “They just had a lot of really good players.
“I thought Utah needed a different star, but I changed that.”
Rudy Gobert (left) and Donovan Mitchell lead NBA best jazz. But should the two LA teams worry about Utah? Alex Goodlett / Getty Images
It’s not unprecedented for the Gobert / Mitchell era jazz, which dominates for significant sections of the regular season. It happens at least once a year.
Utah won 21 of 23 in a 2018 run that ran from late January to mid-March. Jazz had an 11-2 run in January 2019 and a 12-1 run a few months later. And Utah went 19-2 from mid-December through late January last season. But those editions of jazz combined only won one playoff series.
These jazz play with a certain energizing glee – “It just looks like fun,” remarked reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo after his Milwaukee Bucks lost double digits to jazz for the second time this season – but they often give post-game reminders found out that they haven’t achieved anything worth celebrating.
“We don’t want to be the best team in February, we want to be the best team in July,” said Mitchell after defeating the bucks on February 12, when Antetokounmpo West described jazz as the “best team in the world”. “
There are some obvious differences between the Jazz and Utah teams this season from the previous campaigns. This is the result of the work of the Front Office to correct the team’s shortcomings.
The Jazz realized they were way too dependent on Mitchell to take off after Utah’s ugly appearance in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, a five-game sack by the Houston Rockets in which Jazz shot 40% off the ground excite 26.3% from the 3-point range.
Utah made adding games and shooting their top off-season priority. He traded for point guard Mike Conley and striker Bojan Bogdanovic, then acted for Jordan Clarkson in the mid-season to add a much-needed goal threat from the bench.
“You’re kind of going back to the old Detroit team that won it. They just had a lot of really good players. I thought Utah needed a different star, but I changed that.” Western Conference Scout
There were some extenuating circumstances in Jazz that took the Denver Nuggets 3-1 lead in last season’s playoffs, most notably Bogdanovic’s absence due to wrist surgery. But the jazz came out of the bubble and knew they had to figure out how not to sink when Gobert was sitting. Utah was the All-NBA Big Man in minutes, including the playoffs, plus-319 last season, scoring 117 points while resting.
Utah addressed this issue by bringing back Derrick Favors, Gobert’s longtime front court partner, who was traded to raise the salary cap for Bogdanovic last summer. Favors returned to Salt Lake City understanding that he would not be returning to his role as a startup force, but would be used almost entirely as a backup center.
Just like that, jazz had a solid, eight-member rotation made up entirely of players who were productive as starters, who have consistent, defined roles, and who join the style that Utah wants to play. Coach Quin Snyder can now rely on always playing lineups with multiple playmakers, four 3-point threats and a center that acts as a defensive anchor and rollman.
Two seasons ago, the Jazz was a decent 3 point shooting team that were defensively elite. That was turned around last season. These jazz are now among the best in both, taking the 3 like never before – Utah leads the NBA in Treys tried (42.5 per game) and made (16.8, on pace for a league record) .
“Wow, they spread you out,” said a West Scout. “You can drive it, shoot it, and have a praise threat. You are really hard to defend now.”
All but one of Utah’s top eight players face long-term deals after new team owner Ryan Smith approved new contracts worth at least $ 420 million to keep Clarkson, Mitchell, and Gobert in jazz uniforms for years to come. The exception: Conley, whose increased comfort in his second season in Utah is widely cited as a critical factor in the success of jazz this season.
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Conley struggled to transition after spending the first dozen years of his career with the Memphis Grizzlies. That season, Conley entered the All-Star poll as the third jazz contestant alongside Gobert and Mitchell, in large part because he finished second in raw plus-minus in the NBA, trailing only his teammate Gobert.
“Mike Conley is very different,” said a West scout of the 33-year-old point guard, who averaged 16.4 points and 5.6 assists per game on Wednesday with the best effective field goal percentage (0.559) of his career scored. “He knows your system and your staff and he shoots the ball great.”
But Jazz continued to win even without Conley and went 6-0 as he tended to the tightness in his right achilles tendon and Joe Ingles stepped onto the grid.
That stretch included wins against teams that had the top two records in the Eastern Conference at the time, with Clarkson averaging 32.5 points in 60.5% of wins over the Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, giving him sixth man status the US continued to improve its year contenders.
THE JAZZ STRUCK an optimistic tone after Friday’s defeat to hosts Clippers (116-112), the only flaw in Utah’s February record.
“I think this is a bump in the road and a good one in my opinion,” said Mitchell, citing his experience of competing in clutch situations. This is a rarity when you consider that an eight-point win at the Indiana Pacers was the closest game in the nine-game winning streak that sparked that night.
The Jazz were delighted that they hit the Clippers with full force as George and Leonard also came back from injuries and were bolstered by the intensity they considered a playoff to get an accurate measuring stick.
“It was a great opportunity for us to keep getting better,” said Gobert.
The result, however, confirmed the belief in the league that despite Utah’s place on the western rankings, the jazz continues to be an underdog against the loaded LA teams.
As impressive as jazz’s performance on Wednesday was, it’s not a game that should be viewed as the precursor to a playoff matchup with Davis recovering from a right calf strain. The Lakers also painfully missed security guard Dennis Schroder’s hit, who was paused due to health and safety logs.
“It’s a good win for us, but I don’t think it’s a statement,” said Gobert. “You have missed a lot of people.”
Those who doubt jazz’s ability to beat LA – either the Clippers or the Lakers – usually cite defensive concerns first. Royce O’Neale usually protects the opponent’s top scorer, from shooter to striker.
“Whoever protects the other is the problem,” said a West Scout, referring to two superstar opponents who could stand in the way of jazz in the playoffs.
It’s a problem that jazz would rather have to deal with only in the final of the Western Conference. That is one reason why it is important to stick to the best record in the West. It would likely mean the LA teams would meet in the second round so the Jazz wouldn’t have to beat both the Lakers and Clippers to get out of the West.
“I think they’re the third best team in the West,” said an Eastern Conference manager whose team recently lost to Jazz. “I think they may have the best record in the regular season, but I don’t think they should be preferred to either of the two LA teams. In fact, I’d prefer the LA teams a lot, but I like jazz a lot.
“They did what they should and put themselves in a position where, with a little luck, they could cause a stir.”