NBA: Utah Jazz hit road in quest for playoffs
It was supposed to be a 20-game springboard into the postseason.
It became a seven-week quest for survival a portion of the schedule that served only as a prelude to the stretch run, which will now determine whether the Jazz reach the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.
Between Jan. 13 and March 1, Utah played 15 of 20 games at EnergySolutions Arena, where it had been almost unbeatable early this season. The Jazz played only five road games and four sets of back-to-back games in 48 days.
If Utah was ever going to make a huge move in the Western Conference playoff race, this looked like the ideal time to do so.
Instead, injuries plagued the Jazz.
Gordon Hayward missed half of those 20 games because of a shoulder injury, and as February closed, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson missed games because of sprained ankles.
As a result, the Jazz head into Monday night's game at Milwaukee with a 32-27 record. They are seventh in the West, a half-game behind No. 6 Golden State.
Utah's playoff prospects are hardly secure, however, because Houston and the L.A. Lakers remain in hot pursuit. It appears only three of those four teams will make the playoffs.
The Jazz's chance to qualify was not helped by their 12-8 record during the friendliest stretch of the schedule.
Uplifting victories over Miami, Oklahoma City and Indiana were offset by losses to Houston, Portland, Sacramento, Boston and Atlanta.
The opportunity for a top-four finish in the Western Conference disappeared.
The fight just to reach the playoffs began.
Still, Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin refuses to call the missed opportunity a total failure.
"We actually weathered the storm," he said. "We haven't moved up [much], but we haven't lost any ground, either. Everybody has stayed in just about the same position they had before."
Veteran point guard Earl Watson agrees.
"No one really advanced," he said. "Everybody pretty much stood still. We're closer to the sixth spot than we were before, so we're in good position. I think we did take a step forward."
On Jan. 13, the Jazz were ninth in the West with a record of 20-19.
Since then, they have gained five full games on Golden State, stayed virtually even with Houston and kept the Lakers at arm's length.
Heading into the game against the Bucks, Utah has 23 games remaining 11 at home, 12 on the road and 13 against teams currently bound for the playoffs.
"This time of the year, things happen," Corbin said. "We had guys in and out of the lineup, as we've had all year long.
"But we're playing hard and we've had some young guys get on the floor that we're excited about we're excited to see them grow. That's been a positive for us."
The Jazz, however, are only 10-19 on the road. That's the same record as the Lakers, but seven other Western Conference teams have won more away from home than Utah.
"At this point," Corbin said, "we should have a better understanding of what it takes to win on the road. Plus, the sense of urgency should be there with us fighting for a playoff position."
Said Millsap: "It's going to take a collective effort. We know that. We've struggled on the road throughout the year and it's going to be a grind. But we know how important these games are for us."
Jazz at Bucks
P At the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee
Tipoff • 6 p.m. MST
Records • Jazz 32-27, Bucks 29-28
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Season series • Jazz, 1-0
Last meeting • Jazz, 100-86 (Feb. 6)
About the Jazz • They have lost three of their last four games. ... They play five of their next six on the road. ... They have won 12 of their last 14 games against Milwaukee, including four in a row.
About the Bucks • They have won three straight, over Dallas, Houston and Toronto.
Jazz at Bucks
P Monday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • ROOT