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The Utah Jazz Are Poised For An Upset

James Blancarte looks at the Utah Jazz and how they could make some noise in the playoffs.

James Blancarte

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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.

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

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NBA

NBA AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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