Utah Jazz clinch sixth seed, will face Nuggets in first round of playoffs

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) drives the ball against Denver Nuggets' Torrey Craig (3) during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

On Wednesday morning, Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles kinda, sorta, half-heartedly, not-convincingly tried to claim that three straight losses by his team (in which four starters sat out all of one game and five starters sat out half of another) were not inherently tied to chasing a certain playoff seed.

“I think there’s just too much that can happen and go on,” he said.

And then, on Wednesday night, all that supposed randomness played out pretty much exactly as Utah hoped, as the Rockets lost, the Thunder won, and the Clippers beat the Nuggets — all of which combined to cement the No. 6 seed for Utah and set up an apparently coveted first-round playoff series against Denver.

Granted, even had all that not broken the Jazz’s way Wednesday, they were prepared to take matters into their own hands Thursday, as a fourth consecutive loss in their seeding-game finale against the Spurs would have concluded a most excellent tank job and ensured the sixth 6 seed. And given that both Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley were ruled out on Wednesday afternoon, it was apparent it was a game the Jazz had no intention of winning.

Turns out, losing that game will probably still occur, even though it’s no longer necessary. Gobert and Conley still will not face the Spurs. Health is paramount, remember? And with the Spurs still chasing a play-in berth, they’ll be motivated, making a season-closing four-game losing streak likely for Utah.

Of course, concluding with four straight defeats — some of them more intentional than others — seems at odds with the team’s oft-stated goal of getting a bit better from the first game to the second, and from the second to the third, et cetera, et cetera, all the way through the eighth and final seeding game. Naturally, though, the Jazz are professing the notion that improving while tanking — which they, of course, still were not overtly admitting to — is not inherently impossible.

“Obviously for us, you want to be playing the best possible and be healthy. I think from Game 1 to Game 7, we’ve got a lot better,” Ingles said. “I think we played some really good halves, some really good games, good quarters. Obviously, against Denver, executing down the stretch in some tight situations — it was a really good game for us to be in.”

Fair enough. They did hold their own against the Western Conference’s third seed, after all, in that double-overtime game — one the Jazz had their chances to win.

And certainly the team’s record could be a few games better had they opted not to sit out four starters against the Spurs, or rest all the starters for the entire second half against the Mavericks, and so on.

Still, with all due respect to coach Quin Snyder’s lip service about throwing a handful of rookies out there for extended stretches solely in the name of bench development, can the Jazz even keep a straight face in claiming that legitimate progress has taken place in this stretch?

Apparently they can.

“Obviously, when you have guys in and out of the lineup, it’s tough, but the biggest thing is being rested and mentally and physically ready for the playoffs,” Donovan Mitchell said. “The young guys have been doing a great job, a phenomenal job stepping up when their number’s called. I think that’s the biggest thing you’re looking for. With Bojan [Bogdanovic] out, you try to look for ways to improve in many different places. It’s not easy replacing a 20-points-per-game scorer, but think we’ve done a great job as a unit.”

And besides, Ingles chimed in, reiterating the company line, the starters are already “pretty comfortable playing with each other,” and the rookies are going to have to get thrown into the fire anyway, so why not now?

“Realistically, depending on injuries, foul trouble, or whatever it is, some of those guys are going to have to play at some point. It’s just the reality of playing this kind of situation,” he said. “… So we’ve got one more tomorrow. We’ll obviously do the same thing, figure out some more stuff, see what works, see what’s not as good, and go on from there.”

There is, at least, a definitive recognition of what some of those “not as good” items on the to-do list are, anyway.

“Rebounding, keeping the ball out of the paint — I think those are two biggest things for the defensive end,” Mitchell said. “It makes our lives a lot easier, because obviously we have Rudy back there to protect us, but [opponents] can’t continue to go into the paint, getting easy points and whatnot. … Turning the intensity up on the defensive end is huge for us as well, just trying to find ways to disrupt the [opposing] offense. Once we do that, we get out in transition, get on offense, it’s smooth sailing from there. But we have little things on the defensive end that we can clean up.”

The question is, how much can they realistically fix those issues when Mitchell and Ingles are sitting against the Spurs on Thursday, while Justin Wright-Foreman and Jarrell Brantley are getting more run?

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. In spite of losing their season series to Denver 3-0, the Jazz were targeting a postseason run against the Nuggets. And now they’ve got it.


At HP Field House, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Tipoff • Thursday, 4:30 p.m.

TV • AT&T SportsNet - Rocky Mountain

Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM

Records • Jazz 43-28; Spurs 31-38

Last meeting • Spurs, 119-111 (Aug. 7)

About the Jazz • Utah has dropped three in a row and five of seven in the bubble in a bid to earn the Western Conference’s No. 6 playoff seed, which they clinched Wednesday. … Donovan Mitchell, who missed Monday’s game vs. Dallas with a peroneal strain, went through practice Wednesday. … Rudy Gobert (lower back soreness) and Mike Conley (right knee soreness) have been ruled out. Emmanuel Mudiay (left knee soreness) is questionable.

About the Spurs • San Antonio comes in having won three straight games, and five of seven overall in the bubble. … The Spurs are still vying for an 8/9 seed play-in along with Portland, Memphis, and Phoenix. … Derrick White scored a team-high 24 points in San Antonio’s last meeting with the Jazz.

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