It’s an age-old sports conundrum with no definitive answer:
If your team gets eliminated in the postseason, do you become vindictive toward the vanquishers, hoping for them to experience a similar fate and share your pain as soon as possible? Or do you throw some tepid and temporary support their way, under the belief that their continued success and ascension among the league’s elite casts your team’s vanquishing in a more palatable light?
That’s the very question Utah Jazz fans are wrestling with, especially in the aftermath of the Denver Nuggets rallying from a second 3-1 series deficit, vanquishing the vaunted LA Clippers, and advancing to the Western Conference finals.
Perhaps, though, a reframing of the question into less personal and more analytical terms is in order: Does the Nuggets' present run make the Jazz’s first-round ouster more acceptable, and, extrapolating one step further, perhaps indicate Utah is closer to legitimate contention than previously thought?
It’s a valid consideration.
Though, again, one with no definitive answer.
After all, the Jazz held a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets and a 15-point advantage in the second half of Game 5, they were a Mike Conley 3-pointer at the buzzer of Game 7 away from salvaging the surrendered advantage. And they did it all without their second-best offensive player, as Bojan Bogdanovic missed the entire seven games due to wrist surgery.
Is it reasonable to surmise the Jazz beat the Nuggets if Bogey is available? Perhaps. Then again, they did win more games against Denver this season without Bogdanovic than with him.
Still, presuming the Jazz beat the Nuggets, is it reasonable to assume they could also have eliminated the Clippers?
Again, it might have been possible.
After all, Denver just proved that Los Angeles was not without its exploitable weaknesses. Could Utah have exploited them in the same fashion, though?
On the one hand, the Jazz had their own modicum of success against LA this season — winning two out of three regular-season matchups. Further, given the success that Denver’s Jamal Murray had going against a Clippers team loaded with perimeter-defense talent, presumably Donovan Mitchell could have kept his own productive hot streak going.
Meanwhile, with the Clippers employing the traditional paint-bound Ivica Zubac and the rim-running Montrezl Harrell as their two primary bigs, Rudy Gobert would theoretically have had more of a defensive impact, given his increased ability to patrol the lane, rather than chase another 5-out center around the 3-point line.
All of which sounds good in theory — except that the Nuggets needed every bit of offensive production they got from Nikola Jokic in exploiting the defensive deficiencies of Zubac and Harrell just to rally from 3-1 down and to win in seven. It goes without saying that Gobert could not have mimicked Jokic’s offensive output; could Conley and Jordan Clarkson have provided enough supporting production?
Meanwhile, Denver’s perimeter defense improved with Gary Harris' return from injury. Given how frequently Utah’s defenders were torched by the Nuggets, would Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have been more prolific against Utah than they proved to be vs. Denver? Or would Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale have fared better against the bigger wings they’d have been facing?
Let’s presume once more that the Jazz could have replicated Denver’s performance against Los Angeles … and advanced to face the other Los Angeles. Would that mark the end of the Cinderella run?
Certainly, it’s no stretch to say that the Lakers would have been an exceedingly difficult matchup for Utah. Los Angeles' length and sized proved problematic for the Jazz in both regular-season games and the one restart seeding matchup they faced off in — all of which were won by the Lakers.
Anthony Davis was a matchup nightmare, and Utah similarly could do little to slow LeBron James (not that many can). Further, one of the Jazz’s biggest strengths — 3-point shooting — might have been negated by a Lakers defense that held opponents to the seventh-lowest conversion rate beyond the arc during the season.
Any way you look, it would have been tough sledding.
Which brings us back to the same conundrum: Are the Jazz closer to contending than we thought? Maybe it comes down to how you define “competing.”
Certainly, a trip to the Western Conference finals is a more satisfying conclusion to the season than a first-round elimination. But if “contending” represents truly, actually having a shot at winning an NBA championship, it’s difficult to argue that this team is especially close at the moment.
Maybe, at full strength, they’d have beaten the Nuggets. And possibly they could have held their own against the Clippers. Probably they’d get worked against the Lakers. And none of this even begins to address the fact that they tanked their way from fourth place to sixth in the Western Conference just to avoid the Rockets.
That’s not a terribly compelling résumé for being legit contenders. Also, let’s not forget that this roster has certifiable deficiencies in terms of perimeter defense, a consistent backup for Gobert and a dearth of depth — factors that played a significant role late against Denver.
So yeah, this team has some sizable problems right now. Then again, given what we’ve seen in this postseason at large, what team doesn’t, at the moment?
Back to square one we go.