As it stands, the Utah Jazz have a three-game lead on the rest of the NBA. With a 36-11 record, and having won their last seven games, they’ve opened up a gap on the now No. 2 team in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns.
But will they be able to keep that lead?
Looking at the team’s remaining schedule of 25 games, you’d have to think they will. The Jazz have the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, with opponents averaging a .473 winning percentage. Only Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington have easier schedules from an opponent-strength point of view.
But with 14 of those games happening at home, it may be even easier than average. They are completely done facing the Eastern Conference on the road; the furthest east they’ll travel for the rest of the season is Minneapolis. On the other hand, the Jazz will come into five of their games against opponents with a rest disadvantage, compared to just one with an advantage.
Various NBA projection systems agree. ESPN’s Playoff Odds project that the Jazz will comfortably finish as the league’s No. 1 seed, with a 54-18 record in a pandemic-shortened season that far outstrips the two projected No. 2 teams, Brooklyn and Philadelphia, with 49-23 projected records. FiveThirtyEight’s projections place the Jazz with one more win and a 55-17 record; they expect it to be Brooklyn and Phoenix to finish second at 49-23.
On the other hand, those teams may well have the opportunity to catch up. For Philadelphia and Brooklyn, it’s about getting their star players back. Joel Embiid was having an MVP-caliber season before missing the last two weeks with a foot injury, but the Sixers say that he could come back this weekend. The Nets have been winning games frequently with only one of their star trio available, but could see a return soon for Kevin Durant.
JAZZ VS. BULLS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
When • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
The Jazz also have two games each against two of their Western Conference foes left: a two-game series on the road against the Lakers on Apr. 17 and 19, and two separate games in Phoenix on Apr. 7 and Apr. 30. Those tests should give the chance to show what they can do against elite competition — but if they falter, the Jazz could come back to the pack a little bit.
An important question: how much would home-court advantage throughout the playoffs matter? Rudy Gobert, in February, said that he felt that being “one of the top two teams in the West” was important so that they could have home-court advantage, and Donovan Mitchell agreed. But when Quin Snyder was asked about his team’s playoff seeding, he had a different answer:
“I don’t disagree with my players too much, but on this one — I shouldn’t say I disagree with it — but to me, honestly, I want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. And whatever seed that makes you, that would be my hope.”
Of course, with the Jazz in the position they are in, getting anything but the No. 1 seed would probably represent the team faltering somewhat — not playing as well as they have for the season’s first three months.
“That’s why they call it an advantage. So it may be diminished with respect to other years, but there’s a lot of things that go into it, including sleeping in your own bed, travel, all those different variables,” Snyder continued. “Just for us, what I’ve talked about with our group is, whatever the advantages, we want to have consistency... I think that’s a foundational thing that helps you mentally prepare.”
As Snyder referenced, home-court advantage in the NBA has been lesser this year, thanks to a decrease in fans allowed in home arenas. But with the playoffs slated to begin on May 22, it’s possible coronavirus restrictions will have lessened by then, allowing a full Vivint Arena with a raucous crowd. Largely, it depends on coronavirus cases in Salt Lake County, along with the number of residents who have been fully vaccinated at that point.
Regardless of the importance of the nod, it’s clear: the Jazz have pole position entering the month of April, with 25 games left. They’re favorites to win the NBA’s regular season race, and by quite a distance.