Jazz wings Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale would have gone a combined 0 for 18 from the field Sunday, if each player had missed a 3-point try in the middle of the team’s fourth-quarter surge at New Orleans.
Of course, they made ’em.
That’s when you know life is good for the Jazz, even beyond having Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell go for 57 points in an 18th victory in 20 games. So this remarkable run continues, with the Jazz having gone all the way from 10th place in the NBA’s Western Conference to a tie for ninth in less than two months.
That’s the crazy part of all this, how not even winning 11 road games in a row could propel the Jazz above the playoff cut (until Monday night, when they moved into a tie for eighth). Or maybe the real story is how the Jazz (37-30) are only two games out of fourth place with 15 games remaining.
This all makes some sense, how the return from injury of Rudy Gobert and a downturn in the schedule’s level of difficulty have enabled the Jazz to recover. But who could have seen this coming, really?
The Detroit Pistons will be in town Tuesday, reminding everyone where the Jazz were as of Jan. 24. They stood 19-28 and trailed Detroit by nine points with 3:00 to play. Remember what you were thinking of this team at that moment? I do. I’ve told this story, how I was preparing a reasonably harsh critique of coach Quin Snyder’s work, only to have the Jazz outscore the Pistons 10-1 to end regulation, and then win 98-95 in overtime.
Two nights later, Rubio’s 3-pointer with the Jazz down by one in the last five seconds at Toronto rescued another victory, and they’ve just kept winning on the road. The standards have become so high around here that the two home games they’ve lost — to Portland and Houston, two of the NBA’s hottest teams — were viewed as big disappointments.
That’s how much the Jazz have altered the outlook of the franchise, beginning with that night in Detroit. Regardless of what happens between now and April 11, the Jazz‘s future appears much more promising that it did in July after Gordon Hayward’s departure to Boston.
As much fun as last season’s playoff breakthrough was, this season just feels different, because there’s no variable like the continual wondering about what Hayward would do and how that would affect the franchise. The Jazz have recaptured the momentum that was gone when Hayward exited. They’re tracking toward a return to the 51-win level of last year, as soon as next season.
That’s getting ahead of the story. This season’s ending will be a wild adventure. The FiveThirtyEight calculations have the Jazz winning 10 of their remaining 15 games to finish 47-35, in a three-way tie for fourth with Oklahoma City and Minnesota. Those projections have San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers tying for the last playoff spot at 45-37 and Denver finishing 10th at 44-38.
That’s amazing. Last season, 43 wins (Memphis) were good for seventh and 41 (Portland) qualified for the playoffs.
So in October, forecasting a 42-40 record for the Jazz, I figured they would be right around the playoff cut. That’s partly true, even in a season when the Jazz looked like they wouldn’t get back to .500 as mid-January, and now a win total in the mid-40s looks like the least they’ll achieve. And if they rise above a first-round matchup with Houston or Golden State, they could win a playoff series — just like last year.
The biggest development lately is that Snyder somehow has made Gobert, Rubio and Derrick Favors effective together, after that lineup was dragging down the Jazz’s offense. Questions remains about Favors’ future in free agency; I don’t picture him being here next season. But all that matters for now is how he’s contributing to the Jazz’s closing run of 2017-18.
Snyder and his staff have done some of their best work, just when this season seemingly was beyond salvaging. No matter where it gets the Jazz in the standings, anything close to 47 wins would make this a phenomenal coaching performance.
Think about this: The Jazz produced 59 points in the game’s last 17 minutes Sunday, with a roster that made us wonder how this team could score — even before the trade of Rodney Hood.
The Jazz wouldn’t have won that game in Detroit without Joe Johnson’s two big baskets down the stretch, and Johnson then helped Houston beat them last month. Yet even his absence is another good sign for the Jazz’s future. Almost all of this resurgence stems from players who will be here next season and beyond.
Never mind this two-year absence from the NCAA Tournament of Utah’s six Division I men’s college teams, which last happened in 1953 and ’54. This is a basketball state, after all. The Jazz are making sure of that, besides saving their own season.