As the Utah Jazz hit the halfway point of the NBA’s taxing 82-game regular season, things are looking up.
Heading into Saturday night’s game against Cleveland, Utah is 21-19 and tied for seventh place in the Western Conference.
The Jazz have won four of five games and play 14 of their next 19 at home — providing a chance to solidify their apparent standing as a legitimate playoff contender.
“We’ve shown some growth,” coach Tyrone Corbin said. “We’re not exactly where we want to be, but we’re in range of getting ourselves into the playoffs. To make a good run during this home stand that we have, we’ll put ourselves in good position.”
Issues remain, of course.
The Jazz continue to play without injured point guard Mo Williams and, given the depth in the Western Conference, securing a home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is unlikely.
Still, the Jazz have already played 24 road games — as many as any team in the West — and their 104-97 win over Miami on Monday night provided a boost in morale.
“I think we’re where we want to be,” said Al Jefferson. “We started off on the road a lot and we’re still above .500. ... Our confidence is getting higher — that we can play with anybody.”
Despite the Jazz’s 1-3 start this season — and five losses in their first six road games — Paul Millsap agrees that Utah has steadied the ship.
“It was tough in the beginning,” he said. “[But] we’ve turned that corner. We’re the team now that we expected to be at the beginning of the season.”
Referring to the playoff race, Millsap said, “We’re right there. We’ve had our little down moments. But we’re pretty healthy and hitting our stride right now.”
Jefferson’s high level of play is part of the reason for the optimism.
He is scoring efficiently — as always — but his ability to move the ball out of double-teams has helped Utah’s offensive versatility.
According to Corbin, Jefferson has also improved his pick-and-roll defense and willingness to protect the basket.
“He’s done a great job on both ends of the floor — especially of late,” Corbin said.
Jefferson downplays the suggestion he is Utah’s MVP so far, although it seems obvious.
“I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “Just going out there and playing ball.”
So is Millsap.
He is the Jazz’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder. Like teammates Gordon Hayward and Randy Foye, he has played all 40 games
“It’s like I told Paul,” Jefferson said. “It starts with me and him on this team. We have to set the example. We have to go out and hit first. If we do, everybody else will follow. We have to lead this team.”
Beyond Jefferson’s all-around play and Millsap’s dependability, Corbin is enthused by the progress of Utah’s young players.
Hayward has emerged as a player who can take over down the stretch with his 3-point shooting and play-making and defense.
Meanwhile, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alex Burks all look like future pieces to the puzzle.
“Guys are just trying to get better and push forward,” Millsap said. “We’re a focused team right now. We’re trying to make the playoffs and get as high as possible” in the Western Conference standings.
Jazz at the half
The MVP: Al Jefferson
Jefferson is the Jazz’s top scorer (17.4) and rebounder (9.9). He also leads them in minutes (33) and his low-post ability makes him the No. 1 option, especially in the final minutes of close games. When he leads the Jazz in scoring, they are 9-4.
Big surprise: Bombs away
The Jazz finished 27th in three-point shooting last season. Executives Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey knew improvement was needed, but they couldn’t have envisioned newcomers Randy Foye, Mo Williams and Marvin Williams would help make Utah a top-10 three-point team.
Best win: San Antonio.
The Spurs brought the NBA’s best record to Utah on Dec. 12 before Mo Williams’ three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Jazz a 99-96 victory. San Antonio owned an eight-point lead with 4:09 left but fell to 18-5 on Williams’ game-winner.
Worst loss: Golden State.
On the night after Christmas, the Jazz played without emotion. Stephen Curry scored 23 points, leading the Warriors to a 94-83 win. It wasn’t that close. Utah trailed by 20 in the fourth quarter and finished shooting 38 percent.
The Jazz are 16-6 when opponents score less than 100 points and, recently, their defense is improving. Utah has won six of its last eight games and, in those victories, the Jazz have allowed 90.7 points. Only Charlotte scored more than 97.
The coach: Tyrone Corbin
It’s tough to criticize Corbin. No team in the West has played more road games, yet the Jazz remain in the playoff race despite the rugged schedule and a damaging injury to Mo Williams. And consider: Utah is 13-5 in games decided by seven points or less.
Coming attraction: Brooklyn
Not only does Deron Williams return to Utah on March 30, but the Jazz start a potentially pivotal stretch. Beginning with the Nets, they play six of seven games at EnergySolutions Arena — just in time for a final push toward the playoffs.
P Saturday, Energy Solutions Arena, 7 p.m., TV • ROOT