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The Utah Jazz Are Poised For An Upset

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The NBA Playoffs are quickly approaching. Individual team seedings have been somewhat volatile in both conferences. When Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury, the Warriors lost a number of games amidst a tough stretch of their schedule. In that time, the San Antonio Spurs temporarily wrested the No.1 seed from the Warriors, which did not seem at all likely to occur before the injury. With the Cleveland Cavaliers recent free fall amidst lackluster play and poor defensive effort, the Boston Celtics have overtaken the number one spot. Amidst all of this movement, the Utah Jazz are fighting to hold onto home court advantage in the first round.

This Jazz team is somewhat of a newcomer to the Western Conference playoff picture, as they have not been to the playoffs since getting swept in the first round in 2012, where they qualified as the eighth seed. The team’s current core has been improving for years and only narrowly missed making the playoffs last season. This year, though, a number of factors have the Jazz in a position to not only qualify for the postseason, but to possibly make some noise, as well.

What is working in Utah’s favor?

Working in the Jazz’s favor is continuity of the roster. The Jazz drafted franchise cornerstones Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert years ago and each has developed into star-level contributors. The two are in their seventh and fourth season with the franchise, respectively. Luckily for the Jazz, both are hitting new peaks in their careers at just the right time, as the team is returning to the postseason.

Gobert has been recognized as a top-level defender for years, culminating in his candidacy for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He provides the team with a strong backline defender, shot blocker and rebounder. Gobert’s defensive impact has been especially crucial this season, as teammate Derrick Favors has been hampered with injuries all season. Furthermore, Gobert has been on a tear recently. Since March 1, Gobert is averaging 17.4 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks—elite numbers that still, somehow, don’t fully encapsulate how good he has been recently.

In addition to Gobert’s individual brilliance, the team simply plays great defense. Entering play on March 29, the Jazz were ranked third in the league in defensive rating, falling behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. Although the offense isn’t ranked quite as high (13), the team possesses a +4.5 net rating, good enough for fifth in the league. The Jazz have talented scorers but aren’t designed to be an offensive juggernaut. But after years of playing together, the team has achieved a level of defensive impact that makes them a threat to any team on any given night.

This season, voters selected Gordon Hayward to play in the NBA All-Star game for the first time in his career. In his best season yet, Hayward is averaging 21.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Hayward will be relied upon as the game slows down in the playoffs and every possession becomes critical. The Jazz are primarily powered by their defense, but Hayward will be relied on to make plays for others, orchestrate Utah’s offense and make big plays in high-pressure situations. So far this season, Hayward is shooting 47.5 percent overall and 40.8 percent three point shooting in fourth quarters this year. Those trends will need to continue throughout the postseason.

Another thing potentially working in Utah’s favor is the style of play that permeates NBA playoff basketball. As we so often here, the game slows down, each play becomes crucial and it becomes more difficult to get out in transition and play free-flowing basketball. However, this shouldn’t particularly concern Utah as the Jazz are not as reliant on fast break opportunities and prefer a slower pace of basketball. For the season, Utah is last in terms of pace. This means that teams can’t try to disrupt Utah by slowing the game down or mucking up each possession. Utah is used to this style of play and would welcome other teams engaging them with that strategy.

The franchise also made great moves this past offseason in acquiring experienced veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. In addition to their individual talents, these three players bring significant playoff experience. Hill has 75 playoff games under his belt, while Johnson and Diaw have 101 and 108, respectively. This includes championship experience for Diaw with the Spurs. These three have played well this season and will be a steadying presence for a young roster that lacks the playoff experience that their likely opponents have.

Utah has also utilized Johnson as a small ball power forward recently, giving the team another option to help boost the offense when necessary. Head coach Quin Snyder recently stated that using Johnson in this way has been an effective change for the team, and is something he could have implemented earlier in the season.

“I should have figured it out sooner,” Snyder admitted.

The change has been met with not only a slightly improved defense, but vastly improved offense. This may prove useful in the playoffs.

What is not in Utah’s favor?

Key players, such as Gobert, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles and Trey Lyles have never played in a single playoff game. Hayward, Alec Burks and Derrick Favors have very limited playoff experience, as well. Simply put, much of this team has never been in a playoff atmosphere and a handful of their players were a part of the sweep Utah suffered at the hands of the Spurs in 2012. With limited playoff experience, the Jazz may struggle to maintain their collective composure, endure major shifts in momentum and not lose focus after bad calls or other challenging situations.

In addition, the team has not been playing particularly well lately. They have won just five of their last 10 games and in that stretch, their stellar defensive rating has slipped to 12th in the league. Over these 10 games, the Jazz lost in deflating fashion to the Los Angeles Clippers—the Jazz’s likely first round opponent. Following that loss, Gobert vented to the media about the team’s effort.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring,” Gobert was quoted as saying by ESPN.

Soon after, the Jazz held a player’s only meeting. Veteran guard Hill instructed Gobert to keep any discord away from the media and to apologize.

“”I [Hill] told him no matter whoever you’re talking about, you can’t let the dirty laundry out. We’ve got to stay close together. He [Gobert] apologized to the whole team and everyone accepted it. I think [Gobert] learned from it,” Hill told the media.

Further complicating matters are the actual matchup histories this season. The Jazz have lost three of their four contests with the Clippers, two against the Warriors (who they would likely face in the second round) and all three of their matchups with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder currently who have an outside chance of bumping the Clippers out of the fifth seed, which means, in theory, the Jazz could see them, as well. Not ideal.

An additional wrinkle to the pressure of the playoffs, this current team may hold the weight of the franchise on their backs. If the Jazz play poorly and fall flat in the playoffs, that could diminish the prospect of re-signing cornerstone players who are set to be free agents, such as Hayward and Hill.

What do the Jazz need to do?

With two weeks remaining in the season, the Jazz need to finish the season strong and keep home court advantage in the first round. The Clippers have been struggling themselves lately and recent reports indicate that key reserve Austin Rivers may be sidelined until the playoffs with a hamstring injury. Considering the franchise’s notable failures in the postseason, they could be vulnerable in the first round.

Assuming they beat the Clippers (which is no guarantee), the Jazz will have their hands full with the Warriors. Golden State has adjusted to the absence of Durant and has won nine of its last 10 games. Still, the Warriors showed last season that anything can happen in the postseason—including untimely injuries. Between Durant’s uncertain status, Curry’s up-and-down play and the possibility that injuries could come up at any time, Golden State has its vulnerabilities, even if they are massive favorites in a seven-game series against Utah.

Utah is designed to have a puncher’s chance against any team, including the Warriors. With star talents in Hayward and Gobert, an elite defense, quality coaching, roster continuity, playoff-tested veterans and a style of play conducive to playoff basketball, Utah is a team that no one should be eager to meet in the postseason. With this in mind, don’t be too surprised if Utah is the team that blows away our expectations in the upcoming postseason.

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About James Blancarte

James Blancarte

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.