If the Jazz were going to establish themselves as a playoff team in the Western Conference, they needed to take advantage of this initial, home-heavy phase of the schedule.
Instead, this stretch with 10 of the first 14 games at home couldn’t have gone much worse for them.
The Jazz (6-7) deserve credit for showing some toughness in wins over Denver, Oklahoma City and Portland, but those efforts barely masked their offensive troubles. And now with center Rudy Gobert sidelined for four weeks or more with a leg injury, as announced Sunday, the Jazz have lost the heart of their defense.
Suddenly, making the playoffs will be very difficult. We all knew that was going to be a bit of a struggle, even without major injuries. My prediction was a 42-40 record, with the Jazz finishing around No. 8 in the West. That record seems ambitious at the moment, with Gobert out and the Jazz’s offense having displayed little rhythm or consistency — while producing some horrible shooting percentages last week in home losses to Philadelphia and Miami.
There’s a theory that Gobert’s absence will open up their offense and make it more efficient, as happened to some degree in Saturday’s win over Brooklyn, but this team will have to score a lot more points to offset Gobert’s missing impact defensively. Joe Johnson’s return from injury, possibly this week, would help. The Jazz did win Games 1 and 7 on the road in their playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, basically without Gobert, due to injury and foul trouble. But that was with Gordon Hayward and George Hill playing well, and they’re gone.
The Jazz will conclude their opening segment of the season Monday night vs. Minnesota at Vivint Smart Home Arena. This was going to be a checkpoint game anyway, considering the Timberwolves (7-5) are among the teams expected to finish ahead of the Jazz in the West. The contest becomes even more important now, for psychological and practical reasons. If the Jazz don’t get back to .500 by beating Minnesota, they may never get there this season. The same is true of the playoff cut, with the Jazz tied for ninth in the West.
That’s because 12 of the next 18 games will be on the road, beginning Wednesday at New York. The Jazz were a very good road team last season — to the extent that their lack of home-court dominance became frustrating, by comparison. But they haven’t established any road presence this season, and Gobert’s absence will make it more difficult to do so, because the Jazz’s road success was built around defense.