The next three weeks could determine if Jazz are vying for a playoff berth or counting ping-pong balls come April.
Over a long 82 game season, it’s difficult to whittle six months down to a portion of a schedule. But Utah’s current home stretch is as important as any for the Jazz to take advantage of.
Beginning last Saturday against the Lakers and continuing Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Jazz are playing eight of nine games at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Two weeks into the season, a single game separates the eighth spot of the Western Conference from the top. That’s no coincidence. The West playoff race is expected to be as tight as any in recent years.
So, every winnable home game for every team holds an added importance. By the time this home stretch ends and the Jazz leave for their first Eastern Conference road swing, they will have just 31 home games remaining in the regular season.
“This is a year we have to take advantage of home court,” Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio said. “That’s the key to success. We need to be strong at home and give ourselves a chance to win on the road. We know the importance of it this year. We want to have the best home record in the league. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Trail Blazers at Jazz
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Portland 4-3, Utah 4-3
Season series • First meeting
About the Blazers • Salt Lake City native Caleb Swanigan will be making his first trip home as a pro. … Former Weber State star Damian Lillard leads Portland with 24.3 points and 5.7 assists per game. … The Blazers lost to Toronto in the last of a four-game home stand. … Portland forward Meyers Leonard is out with an ankle sprain. … Lillard has 76 30-point games in his career.
About the Jazz • They are aiming for a season-high three game winning streak. … Jazz guard Rodney Hood is coming off a season-high 25 points against Dallas. … Rudy Gobert recorded the second 4x5 of his career (17 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 blocked shots) in Monday’s win over Dallas. He accomplished the feat once last season. … Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said on Tuesday that he became close to Lillard during the pre-draft process. … The Jazz are 2-1 against Northwest Division opponents.
Historically, the Jazz have had dominant teams at home. In 1997, during the height of the Stockton-Malone era, Utah went 38-3 on its home floor. In 2009, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peak, the Jazz were 32-9 at home. Will this Jazz team reach those kinds of levels? No. But it’s certainly something to shoot for.
The good news: Going into Wednesday, the Jazz are unbeaten at the renovated Viv, having won four straight at home to begin the season They’ve done this with two stirring rallies from double-digit deficits against the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks. They dismantled the Oklahoma City Thunder, in their best wire-to-wire game. They witnessed a rookie breakout when Donovan Mitchell scored a career-high 22 points in a win over the Lakers. They are shooting the ball better at home. They are defending better at home, and they have proven to be more resilient as well.
Yet, the Jazz haven’t come close to the same team on the road, which should be of some concern. Utah was competitive against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but ultimately lost in the final minutes, snowed under by a barrage of Jamal Crawford jumpshots.
They were then beaten handily by the Los Angeles Clippers and were embarrassed by the struggling Phoenix Suns.
“The schedule caught up to us a bit in the Phoenix game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We just didn’t have any juice.”
The current home stretch gets tougher as it progresses. After Portland, the Toronto Raptors, an Eastern Conference contender, come to town on Friday. Next week, the revived Philadelphia 76ers (Nov. 7), Miami Heat (Nov. 10) and Brooklyn Nets all visit, before the aforementioned Timberwolves wrap up the homestand Nov. 13.
“This is really important to us, because we spend most of December on the road and we have a really tough schedule,” Jazz power forward Derrick Favors said. “So these next few weeks are big for us, especially before we go on the road. We have to take care of business at home. We have to get some wins and hopefully that helps us build some confidence.”
Simply establishing a home identity is a priority for the Jazz. Last year, they won 51 games, qualified for the playoffs and advanced to the second round, where they were eventually knocked out by the Golden State Warriors.
For all of that success, the Jazz were a somewhat mediocre home team. They finished 29-12 at Vivint, but that was the worst home record among the West’s top six playoff teams. They lost four postseason games at home, and were forced to win games 5 and 7 of the first round at the Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Jazz would like to change that this season, as well as remain the same kind of road team they were in 2016-17 (22-19).
“We want to be the same team at home and away from home,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “We’re working on that. We’re still learning, but we’re confident. We have a lot of guys who make this team better. We know we have a long way to go.”
The Jazz’s best home records in the Utah era:
1996-97 • 38-3
1991-92 • 37-4
2007-08 • 37-4
1989-90 • 36-5
1990-91 • 36-5
1988-89 • 34-7
1995-96 • 34-7
1994-95 • 33-8