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The Triple Team: Looking at the Jazz’s playoff road ahead; lessons learned from the successful season that was

Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) passes the ball past Sacramento Kings center Damian Jones during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Randall Benton)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 121-99 win over the Sacramento Kings from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Mike Conley’s not only back, but still has chemistry with teammates

Last game, we focused on Mike Conley’s individual work: how he moved, how he shot, and so on. Did he look right while playing 16 first-half minutes? Did his hamstring bother him?

Tonight, I thought it was notable how well he interacted with his teammates on the floor. Conley finished with nine assists in only 21 minutes, and was a +28 in that time. Along with Rudy Gobert’s +36, the pair led the Jazz to a win in a must-win game, albeit against a shorthanded Kings team.

Remember last season, when Conley had no idea how to play with Gobert, and vice versa? Well, that’s definitely over now. Take a look at this assist:

Conley bounces the ball high and hard to get it to Gobert’s hands, while he rolls to the rim with two steps to get an and-one. That’s a tricky combination for even good teams to stop.

The Jazz also missed his dynamism defensively. No one else on the Jazz is a sneaky defender like this, being able to swipe the ball away, run in transition, and find the open man.

“It’s like ... where you have a close friend, you don’t see him in a while, and it doesn’t take you long to pick up where you left off. I think we all know those types of relationships,” Quin Snyder said. “I think that’s the relationship that Mike has with this team.”

Conley playing like an All-Star tonight was key to them reversing the slow start and pulling away in the second and third quarters. It also brings some optimism for Donovan Mitchell’s return — if Conley returned and hit the ground running, theoretically, Mitchell should probably be able to do the same.

2. The Western Conference playoff picture

So after tonight, we know what the Western Conference’s seeds look like. They are:

1. Jazz

2. Suns

3. Nuggets

4. Clippers

5. Mavericks

6. Blazers

7. Lakers

8. Warriors

9. Grizzlies

10. Spurs

We do not know who the Jazz will play. That will be determined on Friday, when the final Western Conference play-in game is held. The winner of that game will play the Jazz.

The Spurs and Grizzlies will play each other at 5:30 p.m. MT on Wednesday — the winner of that game advance and will play on Friday, while the loser is eliminated. The Lakers and Warriors will play at 8 p.m. MT on Wednesday — the winner of that game will play the Suns, while the loser of that game will play on Friday.

NBA playoff bracket, with play-in games. (NBA.com)

The most likely outcome is that the healthy Lakers, at home, beat the Warriors in order to get the seven seed, leaving the Warriors to play either the Grizzlies or Spurs to determine a Jazz winner. In my mind, it’s that Lakers/Warriors game that would be most important to Jazz fans: I think the Jazz have very good chances against the Warriors, Grizzlies, or Spurs to advance, but the defending champion Lakers would be a very tough matchup.

Elsewhere, the Clippers’ successful tank tonight against the also-tanking Thunder meant that they fell to the four seed. Clearly, they felt more comfortable playing the Mavericks than either the Blazers or Lakers. But because of that, they become the Jazz’s likely second-round opponent, if both teams get through the first round as favored.

Clearly, the Jazz would have preferred playing the Nuggets or Blazers instead. But I still think this Jazz squad would give the Clippers some fits; it’s definitely an intriguing matchup for Utah.

The win tonight also gives the Jazz home-court advantage in a playoff series against the Suns. I think it’s ultimately unlikely that both teams make it through the gauntlet they face to the Western Conference Finals, but it’s definitely very possible.

Ultimately, it has the potential to be a worst-case scenario bracket for the Jazz: Lakers, then Clippers, then Suns. Maybe most likely is Warriors, then Clippers, then Lakers. Those are pretty difficult slates, but hey, nobody said it would be easy.

3. Things we learned this season:

We’re at the end of the regular season, and while we’ll have plenty of time to expand on these, I just want to lay out some of what we learned this season in bullet-point form:

• The defense is back. After last year’s Jazz were really iffy defensively, they finished the year with the league’s third-best defense. A lineup built around Rudy Gobert can still be elite defensively, even with Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Ingles, Clarkson, and O’Neale the other key pieces.

• The central revelation of this season was a new step forward in 3-point shooting frequency. Sure, the Rockets showed you can take half of your threes in a season before — they shot 50% of their shots from there, while the Jazz were a measly 49%. But it turns out that you don’t need a James Harden to do it: you can still shoot that often through team basketball and a quick trigger.

• Quin Snyder, even in his 7th year as coach of the Jazz, can still throw in fresh ideas and bring his players to new heights.

• You can be an elite offensive rebounding team in 2021 (Jazz were 3rd in the NBA) through having centers who try at it, and adding one corner athletic wing getting in the mix. You can still be elite at defense while doing so, if you’re willing to abuse the intentional foul in transition.

• You can be an elite defensive team while being last in the league at forcing turnovers.

• You can be an elite offensive transition team while being last in the league at forcing turnovers.

• Mitchell and Gobert’s relationship wasn’t unsalvageable at all.

• Neither Mike Conley nor Joe Ingles were washed, even at 33 years old. In fact, both had two of the best seasons of their careers. At some point, Father Time will catch up, but not yet.

• Jordan Clarkson’s a wildly useful player, and with only a couple of tweaks.

• Derrick Favors, though, hasn’t looked like the player he once was, even at age 29. He’s had more injury issues than those two, though. Currently, he looks like an overpay for the mid-level, though he’ll have the chance for a bounceback playoffs and next season.

• Georges Niang is a pretty crucial rotation piece, thanks to his shooting ability and quick trigger, along with newly wholly adequate defense. He’s a free agent this year, and the Jazz could lose him, but he would be a big miss.

• Bojan Bogdanovic had nearly the same season as last year, just on 10% fewer shots. Royce O’Neale had nearly the same season as last year, just with more rebounds and turnovers.

• Juwan Morgan and Jarrell Brantley didn’t make strides in their second year. Udoka Azubuike had a disappointing rookie season, mostly through injury, but didn’t look especially promising when he did play. Elijah Hughes rarely played and we don’t know why, but presumably it wasn’t because he was better than his competition. Shaq Harrison was a disappointment, but so too has been Matt Thomas.

• Miye Oni has a good shot at an NBA future, though — he’ll need to become more aggressive and a better shooter. Trent Forrest has a chance to be an NBA backup point guard, but he’ll need to improve from “worst shooter in the league” to “capable shooter” to fulfill that chance.

Of course, the playoffs have the chance to change some of those narratives, too. Regardless: the Jazz have their best chance at a title in at least two decades, and it should be a thrill to watch. Stay tuned to all our coverage here at SLTrib.com.

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