Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder remembers the final two days of last season well.
In case you don’t, a reminder: All the Jazz needed to in order to play the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs rather than the Houston Rockets was one of the following things to happen in the last two days of the season: a Minnesota victory against Denver, a Sacramento victory against Portland, a Houston win against Oklahoma City, or a Los Angeles Lakers win against Portland.
At one point or another, all of those games seemed likely to go Utah’s way: Minnesota held an 11-point lead with 3:27 left, Sacramento held a 25-point lead in the middle of the third quarter, Houston held a 14-point lead with nine minutes left, and even the hapless Lakers had a 3-point lead with under two minutes to go against the Blazers.
All of the teams with leads collapsed, and at the last minute, the Jazz were facing the Rockets, perhaps their toughest matchup, rather than the Blazers, a team they had success against. The odds of all those comebacks happening independently? One in 898,957.
So when you ask Snyder if the team is considering seeding or trying to choose a playoff opponent with 18 games left in the season, he knows that sometimes, even if you play it right, the probabilities don’t always turn out in your favor.
“It’s really hard to predict and evaluate. You can begin to try to analyze that we’re going to play this team or that team, and then all of a sudden probabilities don’t turn out to be what you expect, or the highest probability doesn’t happen,” Snyder pointed out.
Right now, two opponents for the Jazz seem more likely than any others: the Oklahoma City Thunder and, once again, the Houston Rockets. At this moment, the Jazz are the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, and would be slated to play the No. 5 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s probably a favorable matchup for the Jazz: while Chris Paul has given them fits for the past few seasons in playoff battles, Rudy Gobert having a traditional big to play against in Steven Adams, along with OKC’s lack of wing depth, probably gives Utah the advantage.
But just one game below the Thunder are the Rockets, a team that the Jazz seem to have both a mental and physical roadblock against. For whatever reason, Utah’s 3-point shooting attack seems to have real and consistent problems against the Rockets’ switching defense, and Gobert has trouble making as large of an impact when he’s frequently drawn out of the paint. And because the Rockets have an easier schedule than the Thunder for the rest of the season, that unforgiving matchup might be the most likely outcome. It would also represent a feeling of organizational stasis, a lack of real progress made over the last three seasons. There’s a real argument for trying to manipulate results — tanking or resting if necessary — to avoid playing Houston again.
On the other hand, “You may want to play a certain team, and then that team’s playing well and they beat you,” Snyder noted.
Meanwhile, that has to be balanced with the other factors that go into playoff success. As Snyder explains, “You want to give yourself the best chance to win in the playoffs. Whether that means health, seeding, rest, home-court, rhythm, playing well, all of those things go into it.” Sometimes, playing Gobert 40 minutes in a game might give the Jazz the best chance to win an important game for seeding — and Gobert says he’d be up for such a workload.
As Snyder says, home-court advantage could be important too, both as a milestone for the franchise and for their likelihood of playoff success. The Jazz haven’t had first-round home-court advantage in a series since 2001, when they hosted the Dallas Mavericks. Sure, success in the playoffs can be had without home-court: for example, in the 2006-07 season, the Jazz made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals without hosting the first-round series. But there have been five first-round losses, too — all in all, the Jazz are 5-5 in first-round playoff series in those past 18 years.
Winning the first-round series is not the team’s ultimate goal, of course, and they know that in order to really progress and impress, they’ll simply have to play better as a team. Losing efforts like Monday night’s against a short-handed, tired Toronto Raptors team aren’t going to push the Jazz forward at all. In other words, the Jazz’s oft-repeated cliches — as Gobert put it most recently, “the goal is for us to take one game at a time, keep getting better, and keep trying to win every single night” — actually do have some validity.
While nailing the right seed could help the Jazz, even the best odds of a great playoff situation can’t override mediocre play.
JAZZ VS. THUNDER
At Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 41-23; Thunder 40-24
Last meeting • Thunder, 104-90 (Dec. 9)
About the Jazz • The Jazz are healthy. … Utah is ranked 23rd in the NBA in pace. … Utah has six players in its nine-man rotation shooting 36% or greater from 3-point range: Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Georges Niang, Mike Conley, and Joe Ingles
About the Thunder • Leading scorer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did not play in the Thunder’s last game on Sunday due to a hip injury. … Darius Bazley suffered a right knee bone bruise in early February and still is a couple of weeks from returning. … Andre Roberson has yet to play this season for the Thunder due to a knee injury. … Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari both average over 19 points per game.