“We’re trying to establish ourselves as a playoff team.”
Those were the candid words spoken by Al Jefferson after the Jazz lost at home Monday night to Boston. The question as to whether they actually are is hanging thick as a cumulus cloud over the Jazz these days, and not even they know the answer. It’s not as simple as adding up the numbers and checking the current standings. It’s more a matter of whether the Jazz belong in the playoffs — are they really a legit playoff team? — and, if they make it numerically, can they pose any kind of genuine threat to any of the West’s top contenders?
The answer to that last one is … hell, no.
There answer to the first one is … maybe, but only under one stretched condition.
As for the numbers, at present, the 31-26 Jazz are hovering near the bottom of qualification, surrounded above by sixth-place Golden State, which as of Tuesday morning was 33-23, and down below by eighth-place Houston (31-27) and the lingering Lakers (28-30), who Kobe has guaranteed will make the cut.
The Warriors have played six more games on the road than at home at this point, and they finish the season with the reassurance of a closing run of 16 of 22 games played at Oracle Arena. The Rockets also have weathered more roadies (31) than home games (27). The Lakers are all square at 29, while the Jazz sit at 28 home and 29 road.
None of those teams is impressive away from its friendly confines, although Golden State is 15-16. The Rockets at this writing are 12-19 on the road, and the Jazz and Lakers a lousy 10-19.
If you look at the teams with winning records on the road, it is telling: In the West, those clubs include the Spurs (23-11), the Clippers (18-12), the Thunder (16-11) and the Grizzlies (15-11).
What those teams have in common is their authenticity as the fiercest contenders in the conference. There are no pretenders among them. The toughness it takes to win away from the comforts of the nursing mother’s breast of a home court reveals a whole lot about what a team really is. No club has won an NBA title without a winning road record since the late 1970s, a convincing tidbit.
And, like a lot of other outfits, the Jazz aren’t anywhere close to that higher standard of validity. It exposes in them a weakness that cannot be concealed or prettied up by wins over the Spurs, the Thunder and the Heat at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Jazz need Norman Dale to haul his tape measure out and make clear to them that the dimensions of the basket and court are no different in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Oklahoma City, where, after home games against Atlanta and Charlotte, the Jazz play five of their subsequent six games. Nine of their 16 games in March are on the road, including at San Antonio and at Houston.
Their propensity to lose two road games for every one they win makes losses like the one they absorbed against the Celtics on Monday night that much more problematic. Paul Pierce took over that game at the end, often creating his own offense, while the Jazz fiddled and faddled around by committee, searching for someone, anyone, to pull them through.
It’s been said a thousand times, only because it should be said a thousand times, and a thousand more, that the Jazz pretty much know who and what Jefferson and Paul Millsap are. They are the Jazz’s leaders, and they are limited. They have their value and their roles, and Jefferson, in particular, has at times hit clutch shots when the team needed them. But he cannot take over a game like Pierce. Teammates can’t just throw him the ball and let him work his wonders.
That’s why this conclusion can be drawn in answering the first question: The Jazz will make the playoffs and make a mark there when and if the youngsters, if the core four, as they’ve come to be known, take up the slack — not later on, not next year or in two years — starting now.
Over one late span in the thick of a tight game against the Celtics, that group — Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks, along with DeMarre Carroll — rocketed the Jazz on a 13-2 run that would not hold up.
It was impressive, nonetheless, and didn’t look all that much like a fluke. In that game, all of those players wound up with even or positive numbers in the plus-minus, while all the starters were in negative numbers.
Asked about the progress the young ones are making, Favors said: “I feel good about everything. Everyone is working hard to improve. We’re young but we’re continuing to get better.”
Asked about his own development, he said: “I welcome the responsibility. I don’t shy away from it. If they want me to be a focal point, I can do it. I’m getting better with my post moves at the offensive end and defense is the strongest part of my game. I have a ways to go. Right now, I’m just going out and playing hard. The other guys will follow along.”
That’s a huge part of the Jazz’s future. But it’s also a part of their present. It’s the only positive answer to the question that hangs over them now.