Regardless of what the standings might say, there ultimately will be no dissuading some people from their belief that the Lakers and Clippers are the top teams in the Western Conference. And they may ultimately be proven right.
In the interim, though, such speculation does nothing to detract from Wednesday’s matchup between the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns — two teams that have their fair share of doubters and detractors, but which are, by the cold, hard numbers, the best in the West in this moment.
That, at least, is how some of the Jazz players are looking at it, anyway.
“This is a big one — 1 seed vs. 2 seed. You try not to look at those things, but it’s hard not to,” Donovan Mitchell conceded after Monday’s loss to the Mavericks. “You understand the magnitude of the game that’s coming up.”
Regardless of other teams’ injury or illness or load management situations, there is no getting around Utah and Phoenix having the two best records in the league (38-12 and 35-14, respectively) right now, and the two best net ratings besides.
And with the Jazz’s nine-game winning streak snapped in Dallas, the Suns’ six victories in a row now stand as the longest present stretch of success in the league.
Like the Jazz, Phoenix has been great this season on both sides of the ball, ranking fifth in defensive rating, while leading the league in assists and mid-range field-goal percentage, ranking second in overall field-goal percentage, and third in free-throw percentage, corner 3-point percentage, and percentage of points scored in the midrange.
JAZZ AT SUNS
When • Wednesday, 8 p.m. MT
TV • ESPN, ATTSN
Also, like the Jazz, they’re powered by two foundational pieces, with Chris Paul and Devin Booker leading the way.
“You add a Hall of Famer like Chris to a team with such an elite talent and elite scorer in Book — a guy who’s taking his game to another level on both ends of the floor — [and it’s impressive],” said Jazz point guard Mike Conley. “… You’ve got two stars leading the way; Chris Paul and Devin Booker is going to be a tough night for anybody. So we just have to watch film, be ready, be ready to match their intensity. We know it’s going to be a physical game, and and a cerebral game with Chris — he’s such a smart point guard. So we’ll have to go out there and see what we got.”
Also, like the Jazz, though, the Suns are far more than just two elite pieces.
“Book is Book — he’s an All-Star for a reason. He’s been doing this his whole career. You add Mikal Bridges, who is coming in and locking in as a defender. DeAndre Ayton can do his thing down low. Then you got Jae Crowder, who’s a physical presence — obviously we know Jae. Then you add the mind of CP with the skill of Book — you see why they’re in second place,” said Mitchell. “… They do a lot of things well: they rotate, they’re aggressive, they’re physical, they hit shots. They’re a pretty diverse team in that way. That’s what makes them really talented. They’ve done things that they’ve been doing, but just at a higher level this year. That’s what makes them a unique team.”
Royce O’Neale added Tuesday that Phoenix is known for playing “physical and aggressive and fast,” and that Utah will need to match the intensity if they’re to avoid a two-game losing streak.
Asked if there was a little extra something to this matchup because it’s 1 vs. 2, O’Neale’s answer was something of a mixed message.
“I mean, it’s another game. We’re going to treat it as if it was a playoff game,” he began. “I feel like it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere. But I mean, at the end of the day, it’s still a regular-season game. We’re just going to continue to get better, focus on ourselves, play within ourselves, and do what we have to do.”
Regardless of how the Jazz (or anyone else) ultimately perceive this singular contest, they do recognize and acknowledge that the stretch of games that they’re facing this week (consecutive games against presumptive West playoff qualifiers Dallas, Phoenix, and Portland) will ultimately say something about their status as an elite squad.
“It’s going to be an important week for us to just test that barometer, see where we’re at, and keep pushing,” Conley concluded.