The regular season ended Sunday, and the Jazz have clinched the top seed. And for the first time ever, we don’t know what comes next.
Thanks to the NBA’s new play-in format, the Jazz could play one of four possible opponents in the first round of their playoff series beginning Saturday: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Golden State Warriors, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the San Antonio Spurs. Those four teams will battle it out over the next week; the two winners get the pleasure of playing the Jazz or the Suns in the first round.
So what would matchups against those teams look like? Let’s break it down.
Jazz vs. Lakers
Yikes. Playing the defending champion Lakers in the first round? A team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, one that many preseason thought would be even more talented than in last season? If this is the Jazz’ first-round matchup, it is perhaps the most unfortunate outcome for a top seed in league history.
The good news is that the Lakers haven’t looked like themselves this season. The biggest factor behind that is injuries: LeBron James has played only 43 games, and Anthony Davis has played only 33. James was an MVP candidate before he went down, but Davis is having his worst season since his rookie year — not shooting well, somewhat short of his usual defensive input. There’s an argument, then, that facing the Lakers early may well be helpful to the Jazz’s championship aspirations: If you’re going to likely face them, might as well be when they’re somewhat rusty, playing below 100%.
The Lakers are not a good shooting team (25th in 3-point shots made this season), and the Jazz can be more aggressive with their help than against other opponents. Their peculiar center rotation has big names, but limited playoff quality: both Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell are the kind of exploitable pick and roll centers that the Jazz would love to play against, and Marc Gasol has grown somewhat frustrated in a limited role. There is hope for the Jazz, from an X’s and O’s point of view.
But James is still an all-time great who has shown indomitable will in playoff series, and Davis is still the wildly versatile two-way big man who can blow up plays everywhere on one end and then silkily score on the other. The Lakers also have shown impressive defensive versatility without those players: Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have grown as defenders under coach Frank Vogel. They are the league’s No. 1 defense, and the Jazz’s offense could well bog down under their length and defensive skill.
It would be a fascinating series, but one that the Jazz would probably like to avoid — they’d be favored to lose, and suffer the ignominy of a first-round exit for the third consecutive year.
Jazz vs. Warriors
Jazz fans could be worried about a matchup with the Warriors, given the team’s recent loss, the 1-2 record against the Warriors this season, and the fact that Steph Curry is on the other side. Curry is having another amazing season, and he bends the Jazz’s defense in ways that very few other players do — maybe Damian Lillard also qualifies.
One consistent theme in the Jazz/Warriors matchups so far has been the importance of Rudy Gobert. In all three games with Gobert on the floor, the Jazz have outscored the Warriors; when Derrick Favors is on the floor, the Warriors outscore the Jazz. Overall, it’s a big difference: The Jazz are +52 with Gobert out there, and a -29 with Favors out there. Gobert figures to play more minutes during the playoffs than in the regular season, so that seems like an advantage for the Jazz.
But the Warriors are playing their best basketball at the end of the season. Rookie center James Wiseman ended up hurting the Warriors’ defensive scheme with his youthful mistakes, so his injury was actually a help to their current play. And Curry has gone supernova, averaging 37 points per game over the last month.
Overall, though, the Jazz should have the ability to overpower the Warriors at full strength. With Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell available to break the Warriors’ switching scheme, things should go better than they did on May 10. And the Jazz’s league-best bench should wildly outplay Golden State’s bench full of two-way and G League players. It may not be easy, but the Jazz would definitely be favored to come out on top.
Jazz vs. Grizzlies
The Jazz vs. the upstart Grizzlies would have the classic feel of a top seed vs. a bottom seed kind of matchup: the Jazz clearly the favorites to win in four or five games, but a chance to introduce the younger team to the playoffs for runs to come.
Ja Morant is a special player, but his lower shooting percentages mean that the Jazz could play their usual defense against him. Dillon Brooks can score, but isn’t really a threat to hurt the Jazz like other secondary scorers in the league. Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson? The Jazz have shown an ability to defend these players well and easily in games past.
Meanwhile, the Jazz could run their traditional offense. Valanciunas is a credible pick-and-roll defender, but not a great one. Donovan Mitchell should be able to score easily, and Mike Conley would feel comfortable playing games in Memphis.
The Jazz are just the toughest potential matchup for the Grizzlies, and the regular season shows it. Remember, in March, when the Jazz played the Grizzlies three times in a week, all wins? The Grizzlies won the three games leading up to that series, and the four games afterward. It’s just they ran into the buzz saw Jazz, a problem they couldn’t solve.
[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]
Jazz vs. Spurs
The Spurs currently sit below .500, but have a chance to make the playoffs. The problem, for them, is that they’re not coming into the playoffs at 100%: USA World Cup national team member Derrick White is not expected to return this season, according to head coach Gregg Popovich.
In the end, that means a lot of reliance on DeMar DeRozan to have huge scoring nights at efficient rates. But the Jazz showed last week that they could contain DeRozan in the midrange while still getting out and stopping the rest of the Spurs’ offense. The Jazz came away with two easy wins.
In the end, the Jazz can just contain too much of the perimeter penetration of guys like Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker — all with not superlative athleticism, perhaps a little susceptible to the wily ways of the Jazz’s defenders. And while Jakob Poeltl has shown himself to be a legitimate NBA starting center, there’s nothing he does that Gobert can’t easily sweep aside.
Perhaps a hot shooting night from DeRozan could get the Spurs a win; Spurs fans at the AT&T Center are also very good and might push their team to improved heights in the playoffs. But again, the Jazz just have much, much more talent than the Spurs, stuck in between eras of their franchise as they are.