During the regular season we tend to focus on the matchups between elite teams, hoping to perhaps learn something about how Player X performs on the big stage, or how the Spurs deal with the Lakers’ size advantage. But those games aren’t really “big” in the macro sense. Elite teams are going to make the playoffs, generally advance pretty far and eventually have to beat another elite team four times in seven tries.
But tonight’s Suns-Jazz game, in Utah? That’s a big a regular-season game, one that will likely decide the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Let’s review the stakes and preview this bad boy.
• Utah enters at 34-30, with a one-game edge on the 33-31 Suns. If the Jazz win, they are in the playoffs. They could in theory move from No. 8 to No. 7 if they sweep their final two games (Tonight and at home against Portland on Thursday) and Denver loses its last two, but that scenario is unlikely.
Phoenix has taken the first two head-to-head games over the Jazz, the last in dramatic fashion three weeks ago in Utah, and thus owns the tiebreaker. The Suns finish Wednesday at home against a San Antonio team that clinched the Western Conference’s top seed Monday night and will likely rest its three star players. If Phoenix wins both games, it is in, regardless of what Utah does on Thursday against the Trail Blazers. Utah could lose tonight against the Suns and still get in, but only if the Spurs beat Phoenix on Wednesday and Utah follows with a (very likely) win over Portland on Thursday.
• This game also has draft implications, beyond the obvious fact that one of these teams will be in the lottery. Utah still owes a first-round pick to Minnesota via the Al Jefferson trade, and it must send its first-round pick in this year’s draft to Wolves if that pick falls outside the lottery. In other words, if Utah wins tonight and makes the playoffs, it’ll lose its first-round pick.
The cynic would argue a first-round pick, even a mid-rounder, is more valuable than a playoff appearance and a likely white-washing against the Spurs. The cynic would have something of a point. The counter would be that Utah already has four lottery picks combined from the last two drafts, and thus could use playoff experience more than another young player. But you never know when that end-of-lottery pick will exceed expectations, and there are few more valuable commodities in the NBA than a productive player on a rookie deal.
Still, all things considered, including some extra playoff home game revenue, both franchises probably benefit more from some time in the postseason hothouse.
ON THE COURT
• This matchup is really a battle of offensive strength against defensive weakness, and in two games so far, Phoenix’s pick-and-roll efficiency has (barely) trumped Utah’s physical post game. Phoenix has shot 50 percent from the floor, a scorching 44 percent from three-point range and 72 percent from the restricted area (on more attempts there than usual) in two wins over Utah, per NBA.com’s stats tool. The Suns have decimated Utah’s sieve-like pick-and-roll defense, mostly by attacking the flat-footed Al Jefferson on Steve Nash/Marcin Gortat pick-and-rolls and spreading the floor with Channing Frye at power forward.
That is a brutal setup for any team to defend. The last decade of NBA history tells us that a Nash team with a “stretch” power forward and a skilled pick-and-roll big man will break just about any defense. Frye is questionable tonight after re-injuring his right shoulder over the weekend, and it will be a huge blow to Phoenix if he doesn’t play. Markieff Morris, shooting 36 percent from three, comes closest among Phoenix’s backup bigs to duplicating Frye’s skill set, but he’s not quite the quick-release, high-volume threat that Frye is, and Utah’s big men will attack Morris relentlessly on the block when the Jazz have the ball.
• One potential complicating factor: whether Utah goes super-big, with Paul Millsap sliding to small forward alongside Derrick Favors and Jefferson–something they haven’t done against Phoenix this season. Injuries to several wing players have forced Tyrone Corbin to play this lineup in spurts lately, and it was a crucial factor in Utah’s comeback win Saturday night over the Magic. It puts three of Utah’s most productive players on the floor together, yields more playing time for Favors, the best defender among Utah’s big men, and allows the rangy Millsap to act simultaneously as a bully against smaller players and a perimeter off-the-dribble threat. Millsap has killed Phoenix, averaging 22 points per game on 55 percent shooting.
The lineup brings obvious concerns, even it has worked in a small sample size so far. Spacing gets tight, though it’s always tight with Utah, annually one of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams. And Millsap, quick as he is, will have trouble chasing around some of the league’s small forwards. Jared Dudley, Phoenix’s small forward, isn’t the league’s most explosive wing player, but he’s a good three-point shooter and moves actively off the ball. One or two open threes could swing a close game.
Also, while it’s tempting to suggest this lineup would allow Favors to guard Gortat, removing Jefferson from the pick-and-roll, that may not be a cure-all. For one, Phoenix will attack Jefferson regardless of individual assignments. And if Jefferson isn’t guarding Gortat, that means he’s guarding a pick-and-pop threat such as Frye or Morris — a tough task for Big Al, and one that could force more aggressive defensive rotations than usual from the Jazz.
(An aside: Is this Jefferson’s biggest game since the 2005 playoffs with Boston? It probably is. He has had a very good season, ranking 11th in Player Efficiency Rating, making a small but key leap as a passer and posting the league’s lowest turnover rate for the second straight year. But he remains a liability on defense, especially in space, and the Suns will test him tonight.)
• Watch the turnovers: Phoenix has turned the ball over just 18 times combined in two games against Utah, a very low rate. In fact, Phoenix has won these two games primarily by winning almost all the side categories; it hasn’t stopped Utah’s offense in general, but it has won the turnover battle, and kept the Jazz off both the foul line and the offensive glass.
The Jazz have shot 51.5 percent in those two losses and scored 110 points per 100 possessions — much better than what the league’s best offense averages in a typical game. They have shot a robust 17-of-35 from the post. They just haven’t been able to supplement all the hot shooting with free throws, threes or a few extra offensive rebounds. The Jazz have the second-best offensive rebounding rate in the league and Phoenix has ranked among the league’s half-dozen worst defensive rebounding teams all season, but Utah in those two games has rebounded just 25 percent of its own misses — a very low number. They’ve also attempted just 45 free throws, disappointing, considering the fast pace of these two games and that Utah ranks eighth overall in free throws per field-goal attempt.
• An x-factor to watch when Phoenix has the ball: the passing of its big men. Gortat is a very patient player on pick-and-rolls, good at catching in the lane, pausing to survey the scene and kicking to an open shooter. And Nash in his old age has become quite good at stringing pick-and-rolls all the way to the sideline when he can’t turn the corner. He generally drags two defenders along with him — his guy, and the big man defending the screener — forcing opposing defenses to play three-on-four behind the play. When Nash eventually kicks the ball back toward the middle of the court, the guy who catches that first pass must make the right decision — pass or shoot? — quickly, before Utah’s defense can recover.
• Another x-factor: Utah’s point guards have been sloppy going under screens against Phoenix, freeing Nash for off-the-dribble three-pointers. This kind of thing can be lethal.
• Utah is always one of the league’s best cutting teams, and having perimeter players cut around Jefferson and Millsap in the post is a core principle of this Jazz offense. The Suns’ starting wing players, Dudley and Shannon Brown, are both prone to ball-watching and thus vulnerable to back-door cuts. They will have to be careful tonight.
• The Jazz have done well in the post against Phoenix — 17-of-35, as mentioned above — but the Suns have at least kept things under control there; the Jazz average about 15.5 shots from the post per game, per Synergy Sports, so it’s not as if they have hammered Phoenix more than they do the typical team. Gortat has the length and strength to at least make Jefferson’s life difficult, and Millsap’s back-to-the-basket game has resulted mostly in fadeaways against Frye. (His face-up game is a different story.)
But on possessions when Frye ends up on Jefferson, the Suns should think hard about doubling, especially considering Utah’s lack of outside shooting. Jefferson has toyed with Frye this season, overpowering him and fooling him with pump fakes.
• In the end, the game may be decided by which team gets the most from its secondary perimeter players, unreliable groups on both sides. Phoenix will need something from Dudley, Brown or Michael Redd, and it’ll need at least some stability from Sebastian Telfair. Gordon Hayward keeps getting better for Utah, but he’s still prone to the occasional quiet game. Alec Burks is hit-or-miss, and Devin Harris has capped a disappointing season by suddenly going 15-of-32 from three-point range over his last four games and scoring better than 20 points in each.
Who among those group outperforms expectations tonight? Who underperforms? The answers will probably decide the game. Enjoy.