Three weeks ago, the Utah Jazz were spiraling out of control.
An ugly 104-90 loss to the Atlanta Hawks left them with a 19-28 record. There was no life or energy on the court. There was uncertainty in the locker room. The trade deadline was looming. They were sitting in the 10th spot in the Western Conference. Making the playoffs? That seemed like a pipe dream.
Eight wins later, the outlook is very different.
It’s more than the Jazz having the longest current winning streak in the NBA, or the franchise having its longest win streak since 2010. Things just feel different. On the floor, the Jazz trust each other. They look like a unit, instead of individuals. This group, which impressively has never fractured in the face of adversity, seems closer than ever. They are stopping people defensively, and scoring offensively. The trade deadline is behind them, and there’s a new member of the group in Jae Crowder, while Rodney Hood is playing with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“As disappointed as we were in our performance that night [in Atlanta], there’s always going to be games where you lay an egg,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It’s all about how you respond, and these guys have responded. They never stopped competing, and it’s made a difference.”
On Sunday, Utah will face its division rival Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center. The Jazz are still sit in the 10th spot in the Western Conference, but now are just two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
More importantly, there’s hope for the remainder of the season and beyond. It’s clear the tandem of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert is working. And even if beating the Blazers and extending the win streak to nine games is a tall order, especially on the road, the Jazz are now in a much better place. Where there was once chaos, there’s now stability. The team is getting healthier, the outlook is brighter.
“For us, making the playoffs was always the goal,” Utah small forward Joe Ingles said. “Even through adversity, that goal has always been in mind. We’ve kept working, we’ve kept pushing to get back in the race, but it’s always been the goal. Now, for some of us, it’s more of a reality. But we know we have a lot of work to do.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Remaining home and road game splits for Western Conference playoff hopefuls as the NBA season heads down the stretch:
Portland Trail Blazers • 15 home/11 road.
Oklahoma City Thunder • 13 home/13 road.
Los Angeles Clippers • 13 home/16 road.
Denver Nuggets • 12 home/15 road.
New Orleans Pelicans • 15 home/13 road.
Utah Jazz • 16 home/11 road.
How did the Jazz turn their season around?
Gobert and Ricky Rubio are the obvious answers. Gobert has come back from injury and been dominant in the middle. He’s averaging 13.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots in his last 10 games. His defensive presence belies even his gaudy statistics, and his ability to be the roll man offensively has unlocked Utah’s entire offense.
Rubio, after struggling mightily for much of the season, has played arguably the best basketball of his career. He’s averaging 20.6 points and 7.8 assists in his last five games. He’s making open shots, playing stifling defense and running the team like Snyder envisioned when the Jazz traded for him last summer.
According to many players and coaches, two games stand out for the Jazz on their winning streak.
In beating the Detroit Pistons, the Jazz were able to overcome a late deficit. Plus, Rubio cut his eye, went back to the locker room and finished the game before even getting stitches. It showed a toughness to his teammates and that toughness helped significantly in the chemistry department. Teammates realized Rubio was invested.
Utah’s win over the San Antonio Spurs came after travel issues. Mitchell didn’t play because of the flu and it was a game the Jazz easily could’ve lost. But they came out and beat a Spurs team that is one of the best in the league on their home floor.
“That’s the one that let us know the streak was real,” Mitchell said. “With everything that we went through, we could’ve easily laid down for that game.”
The question is whether the winning streak is sustainable, and whether the Jazz can sneak into the postseason.
Six teams from the fifth to the 10th spot are separated by three-and-a-half games. On paper, the Jazz could have an advantage. According to teamrankings.com, Utah has the NBA’s seventh easiest schedule for the remainder of the season.
If you compare that to their counterparts, it’s easy to see that the Jazz have the softest end to their regular season. The Oklahoma City Thunder play the third hardest schedule the rest of the way. The Denver Nuggets play the eighth hardest. The Los Angeles Clippers play the ninth hardest. The Trail Blazers play the 10th hardest. And the New Orleans Pelicans play the 13th hardest.
Utah has 16 home games and 11 road games remaining, which could also play a role. Plus, the Jazz are playing with a confidence that simply wasn’t there during the first three months of the season.
If Utah can go 2-1 in its next three games, the Jazz can enter the all-star break with a .500 record. Two weeks ago, imagining the Jazz at .500 at any point for the rest of the season seemed ambitious, if not ludicrous.
Now, the Jazz are together as a group. They’ve fortified themselves as a unit. And after the trade deadline, they seem poised to make a run at the postseason.
“The Atlanta game was ugly for us,” Utah forward Derrick Favors said. “But we just told ourselves to move on, as hard as that was. It clicked for us a little bit in Detroit, and we’ve been on a roll ever since.”
JAZZ AT TRAIL BLAZERS
At the Moda Center
Tipoff • Sunday, 7 p.m. MST
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 27-28, Blazers 31-25
Last meeting • Jazz 112, Blazers 103 (Nov. 1)
About the Jazz • Jae Crowder is expected to make his Jazz debut on Sunday. ... Point guard Ricky Rubio is questionable with hip soreness. … The Jazz are 9-1 in their last 10 games and 9-2 since Rudy Gobert’s return. … The Jazz and Blazers will play three more times before the end of the season. … Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has scored at least 20 points 25 times this season, a high for NBA rookies.
About the Trail Blazers • Damian Lillard scored 50 points in just three quarters in Friday’s win over the Sacramento Kings. … At the trade deadline, the Blazers sent forward Noah Vonleh to the Chicago Bulls. … Portland rookie Caleb Swanigan is a native of Salt Lake City. … The Blazers also have former Pleasant Grove star CJ Wilcox on their roster. … Lillard is now fifth on the Blazers’ career scoring list.