A new team has passed the Mavericks, winners of four straight heading into a brutal stretch of games, as the league’s toughest to pin down: the Utah Jazz.
I keep writing off the Jazz for talent reasons, and they keep proving me wrong. Utah is on its own four-game winning streak, the last two against true heavyweight teams in the Lakers and Western Conference-leading Thunder. The Jazz improved to 24-22 with Tuesday’s victory against Oklahoma City, tied with the eighth-place Rockets in the loss column. They still have a chance to win tiebreakers against all four teams competing right now for the last two playoff spots — Denver, Houston, Phoenix (more on the Suns later) and Minnesota.
Denver’s inclusion mostly has to do with the Nene trade, Danilo Gallinari’s broken left thumb and a road-heavy remaining schedule, as detailed here on Tuesday. You could also make an argument that fifth-place Dallas belongs in this discussion despite its robust 27-20 record. The Mavs have the league’s toughest remaining schedule, with a collective opponents’ winning percentage around .560 and 11 of their final 19 games on the road. Their next eight games are ridiculously tough from start to finish, with the dreaded Miami-Orlando road back-to-back mixed in with a pile of games against West playoff locks or near-locks.
But the Mavs seem to have righted themselves, and they will start getting some of their injured players back soon. This team, so comfortable with its identity and the rhythms of a long NBA season, has earned a degree of trust and respect.
Back to Utah: The Jazz are 23rd in points allowed per possession, a ranking that should on its own nearly disqualify them from the playoffs. The two players that carry Utah’s surprisingly steady offense, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, aren’t exactly world-beaters on defense, especially against the pick-and-roll. Ball-handlers working the NBA’s bread-and-butter play have shot 46 percent against Utah, one of highest marks in the league. The Jazz have been worse defensively when most of their starters are on the floor, though no player has had a larger negative impact in this sense than Jefferson. In continuing an annual Jerry Sloan-era tradition, the Jazz send opponents to the foul line more often, per shot attempt, than all but one team (Toronto).
Utah has survived mostly on the strength of a top-10 offense, a brutish two-headed post attack, an avoidance of turnovers and the notion that at least one or two of its maddeningly inconsistent (or just plain unproductive) perimeter players will chip in some badly needed points every night.
That offense has been up and down during this four-game winning streak, and the Jazz in this stretch have continued to foul the bejesus out of everyone. And yet even with all those fouls, it has been Utah’s defense over the last week or so that has vaulted the Jazz back into the playoff race. In other words, just when it’s pegged as a team that will fall out at any moment when its offense slips a notch, Utah surprisingly fights its way back into contention.
The Jazz allowed a points-per-possession mark below the league’s average in each of those four wins, and they held both the Lakers and Warriors (a depleted bunch at this point) to a mark even stingier than what the NBA’s best defense (Philadelphia) permits on an average night. Those four teams shot 43 percent collectively, including 29.7 percent from three-point range, and the Jazz, at times a shaky rebounding team, have cleaned the defensive glass since the calendar turned to March. Before the Thunder grabbed 15 offensive boards Tuesday, the Jazz had allowed single-digit offensive rebounds in five straight games — not easy, considering how many missed shots they had to track down.
Jefferson missed two of those games. Derrick Favors, starting in his place, grabbed 27 rebounds combined and generally held his own on defense. Rookie Enes Kanter played solid minutes in moving up a spot in the rotation. Injuries to Earl Watson, Raja Bell and now Josh Howard, who is out for the season with a left-knee injury, have opened up minutes for rookie Alec Burks and Jamaal Tinsley.
It’s fair to wonder if the injuries to Bell and Howard might be a blessing in (a not terribly deceitful) disguise. Bell found his stroke from long range after a horrid start, but he is a nonentity on offense outside of an occasional spot-up shot. He has attempted just 7.8 shots per 36 minutes, a very low number for any sort of rotation player, and he seldom gets to the foul line. Howard has worked hard and been a steady presence, especially on the glass, but he’s also shooting 39.7 percent overall and 22 percent from deep.
Burks and second-year small forward Gordon Hayward are going to be inconsistent, but the Jazz may well be better off if those two — and especially Hayward — earn more minutes. They provide a much-needed dose of outside-in creativity. Hayward has developed into a serviceable pick-and-roll player, particularly from the wings, and he has dramatically increased his assists while cutting his turnovers. He’s also 9-of-19 from three-point range over Utah’s last 12 games, a moderately positive sign that he may be finding his long-range shot — at least when he’s wide open.
Jefferson and Millsap are going to get the lion’s share of front-line minutes, simply because Utah’s offense cannot sustain in the long run without both of them on the floor together. Each has improved across the board, with Millsap especially capable of producing some crazy box-score lines. He has recorded at least three assists together with at least three steals in five of the last eight games. Every time Millsap goes through a mini-slump, I get emails from Utah fans wondering if the regression to the mean has finally happened. And then Millsap inevitable rebounds. He is 12th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, emerging as a truly elite player and, given his $8.1 million salary, one of the best value-per-dollar guys in the league.
Utah’s schedule isn’t actively hostile the rest of the way, either, suggesting that the team may well hang in all season. Its remaining opponents have a collective .500 winning percentage, the second-lowest such figure in the West. The Jazz also have gotten a random piece of good scheduling luck in that three of their four games against the newly gutted Blazers are still to come.
The same isn’t true of Phoenix, which has jumped into the playoff race by playing during their 9-3 run as we expected they would all season: blowing the doors off opponents with efficient scoring. Before Tuesday’s tough loss in Miami, the Suns had scored at a rate better than the league’s top offense (Oklahoma City) in four of seven games, and they barely missed that mark in the other three, according to Hoopdata. As John Hollinger noted Monday, Phoenix has gotten more consistent production out of several key players, including Channing Frye, Robin Lopez and Jared Dudley. A few others — Sebastian Telfair, Shannon Brown, Hakim Warrick and Michael Redd — have at least provided sparks in the last two weeks.
That has allowed coach Alvin Gentry to get production from some lineups he barely used all season until recently. For instance, a lineup of Brown, Dudley, Lopez, Telfair and Markieff Morris played four minutes all season before this month, when Gentry has leaned on it for 17 productive minutes in four games, per NBA.com’s stats database. The same combination, only with Steve Nash in Telfair’s place, has appeared in seven games this month after being used in exactly that many from Christmas through March 1. This kind of depth is crucial for the Suns, who have played their most-used unit — Nash, Dudley, Frye, Grant Hill and Marcin Gortat — for 686 minutes, longer than any five-man group in the league, save for Indiana’s starting lineup. When Nash sits, the Suns’ offense has usually transformed from an elite scoring machine into something only a bit better than the Bobcats. Phoenix has at least tempered that trend during its revival.
Unfortunately, Phoenix’s remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .550, and 12 of its final 20 games are on the road. That’s why its gut-punch loss to the Heat was so huge. Winning in Miami is one of the two or three most mathematically improbable victories any team can earn, and thus closing out that game would have given the Suns both a huge boost in their playoff odds and at least a bit of a margin for error going forward.
The only good news with the schedule is that Phoenix has tiebreakers in play with each of the Houston/Denver/Utah/Minnesota group, and its final game will be against a San Antonio team that may well have nothing to play for. But it’s going to be tough for the Suns to crack the top eight in the West.