Utah Jazz Still Very Much On Track to Reach 4th Place By All-Star Break

Feb 1, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) leaves the court after fouling out with 1:10 remaining in the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 104-88. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) leaves the court after fouling out with 1:10 remaining in the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 104-88. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

With a much less daunting schedule ahead than the current fourth place Los Angeles Clippers, the Utah Jazz are still well on track to reach fourth place in the West by the All-Star break.

After a solid 104-88 win against the Milwaukee Bucks in what was a rare blowout victory for the Utah Jazz, everything about the team’s outlook just seems a little brighter. After losing three of their four contests last week, it was easy to be somewhat discouraged about the Jazz’s chances moving forward, but this latest win felt very reassuring.

Nevertheless, while a win over a mediocre team like the Bucks certainly can’t hold a candle to beating the Thunder or Grizzlies, both of which are teams the Jazz fell to last week, by putting that rough six games in nine days stretch behind them, the Jazz looked refocused and revitalized as if they’re ready to go on a big run.

Sure, it was only one win, but it was still good to see Utah take care of business in commanding fashion on their home floor, get a phenomenal game out of their two stars Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert and effectively shut down Eastern Conference All-Star starter Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Hayward finished the game with 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting and Gobert put up 26 points and 15 rebounds while the Greek Freak scored just nine points on 2-of-10 shooting.

And what’s even more exciting about the big win is that it gave the Jazz a 31-19 record, keeping them just a half-game behind the Los Angeles Clippers. It has seemed like on numerous occasions the Clippers have stumbled and left the door wide open for Utah to take the four-spot, but the Jazz have consistently failed to take advantage.

This time, however, by comparing the two teams’ schedules, the Jazz have an incredible chance of finally taking sole possession of the spot before the All-Star break, beginning with tonight’s slate of NBA action. While the Jazz will enjoy two nights off before their Saturday contest against the Hornets, the Clippers will have the unenviable task of taking on the Golden State Warriors tonight.

A loss to Golden State would put the Clippers even with the Jazz in the standings once again, allowing Utah to effectively sneak their way into a tie for fourth place. Given that the last time the Warriors and Clippers clashed Golden State came away with a jaw-dropping 144-98 win, it seems more than likely that such will be the case.

However, the Warriors will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back (although they didn’t seem to have to expend much energy in last night’s blowout win over Charlotte) and the game will be in LA this time around (although it’s a back-to-back for them as well), so perhaps the Clippers will put up more of a fight.

Nevertheless, if I were a betting man, I’d still put my money on the Warriors getting the job done and defeating their divisional foe to help the Jazz get back into a tie for fourth.

From there, by looking at the two teams’ upcoming games leading up to the All-Star break, the Jazz seem to have an incredible opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, they’ve let those opportunities slip before, but this time I have a hard time believing that recent history will repeat itself.

Assuming the Clippers lose tonight and the Jazz come away victorious on Saturday, they will then sneak their way into fourth place with a half-game lead. After that, the Clippers will go on a daunting five-game road trip where they’ll have to play against the likes of the Celtics, Raptors and Hornets before ending the grueling road slate against none other than the Utah Jazz.

That game on February 13th could very well help the Jazz take hold of the four-spot and gain a crucial cushion between themselves and the Clippers.

Of course while earning the fourth place spot at that point of the season will be exciting, it’s only worthy of a brief celebration. What matters most will be how they end the year, so obviously the Jazz will need to continue to play well to make their stay in fourth place (or better) a permanent one.

And while at a glance their schedule looks easier than LA’s, they’ll still have their work cut out for them as following Saturday’s bout against the Hornets, they’ll be on a three-game road trip against a trio of teams that have played well of late in the Hawks, Pelicans and Mavericks.

Then they’ll close out the final games before the All-Star break by hosting three tough playoff teams in the Celtics, Clippers and Blazers (yes, Portland is now back in the eight-spot for the time being).

Still, even though the Jazz will be faced with some tough games, supposing LA does lose to the Warriors tonight, putting their record dead even with Utah’s, the Jazz will just have to find a way to win one more game than the Clippers before the All-Star break to take sole possession of that fourth place spot.

I’m predicting the Clippers to go 3-4 during that seven-game stretch and for the Jazz to do no worse than 4-3 (which could be viewed as a conservative projection) so I’m quite confident that despite their stumbling last week, they’ll still manage to grab fourth place by the All-Star break.

Then if it plays out that way, the final 45 days or so of the regular season are bound to make for an absolutely thrilling chase as the jumble of closely-matched teams in the West will have to fight tooth and nail for pecking order in the conference standings.

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Reaching fourth place by the All-Star break would be a phenomenal accomplishment for the Jazz, but from there, they’ll still have a lot of work to do to hold their ground and finish with a top-4 seed and home court advantage in the playoffs by season’s end.

Yet if last night’s win against the Bucks rather than last week’s collapses to the Thunder, Nuggets and Grizzlies is more indicative of the Jazz team that’s going to show up from here on out, that goal will be very much within their reach.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com