Utah Jazz in Need of Statement Wins to Prove They’re a Playoff Threat

Nov 1, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Utah Jazz point guard George Hill (3) celebrates with his teammates after a basket and foul against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at AT&T Center. The Jazz won 106-91. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 1, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Utah Jazz point guard George Hill (3) celebrates with his teammates after a basket and foul against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at AT&T Center. The Jazz won 106-91. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

Given the Utah Jazz’s struggles against elite teams this year, they’ll need some statement victories in the final stretch of the season if they hope to generate the necessary confidence to make some noise in the playoffs.

At 35-22 and fifth place in the West, there’s obviously a lot to be happy about in terms of the Utah Jazz’s performance up to this point in the season. Given that at the All-Star break this season they already have just five less wins than what they logged during the entire course of the 2015-16 campaign, they’ve undoubtedly improved in an enormous way.

However, it’s no secret that Utah has had its fair share of struggles against playoff caliber teams this season, particularly those in the Western Conference, which of course features the teams that the Jazz will be matched up against in the first round of the playoffs. Utah is currently 6-12 against current playoff teams in the West (4-10 if you take out the sub-.500 Nuggets) and 0-6 in their last six tries.

Against Eastern Conference playoff teams who for the most part quite frankly aren’t as foreboding, Utah is a much better 5-5, but unfortunately they were swept by both the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.

Therefore, if the Utah Jazz truly want to make some noise in the postseason this year, it’s vital that they get some crucial confidence-building wins against elite teams following the All-Star break. There’s no questioning that Utah’s schedule gets significantly harder heading into March and April and they’ll likewise need to find a way to step it up.

Of Utah’s remaining 25 games this season, 14 are against current playoff teams. Perhaps the most crucial and indicative stretch of their first round playoff chances will be from March 8th to March 20th where the Jazz will face off against seven straight playoff teams with six of those contests coming on the road. Yikes.

That stretch will feature a game at Houston, at OKC, at home against the Clippers, then at Detroit, at Cleveland, at Chicago and finally at Indiana. That slate has the potential to either elevate Utah’s confidence to unprecedented heights or tear them down to a dramatic low, depending on the overall outcomes.

Unfortunately, April doesn’t get much better as the Jazz will take on Golden State as well as San Antonio twice over the span of the final six games to close out the season. It should go without saying, but the Jazz are clearly going to have their work cut out for them as they look to finish the season on a high note.

Looking at the current standings, it seems most likely that Utah will face off in the first round against either the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets. However, there’s also a chance that OKC could surge and match-up with the Jazz in the first round or that Utah could plummet to seventh and be faced with San Antonio in round one, so we’ll take a look at both of them as well.

Utah is currently 1-3 against Memphis, 0-2 against LA, 1-1 against Houston, 1-1 against OKC and 1-1 against San Antonio. The series against the Grizzlies is obviously already over and didn’t much go Utah’s way at all. The series against the Clippers is not looking good, but with two contests left on the schedule – one at home on March 13th and one on the road on March 25th – the Jazz could potentially still tie it up.

Nevertheless, they simply haven’t matched up well against Doc Rivers’ Clippers for several years so those are games that make me extremely nervous. If Utah wants to build some confidence and self-belief against a team they could very well face in the first round, and hope to have any chance of advancing to the second round, I’d say it’s critical that they prove to themselves that they can compete with LA by winning both of the two remaining contests.

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While home court advantage would obviously be Utah’s main goal, I’ve alluded before to the fact that I’d much rather have the Jazz drop to sixth place and play the Rockets in the first round rather than stay in fifth and be matched-up against the Grizzlies or Clippers.

The Jazz have fared rather well against James Harden and Co. in recent years and while the Rockets have been a great regular season team, I can see Houston’s lack of defense dramatically hurting them in the postseason.

Although a win over Houston in the two teams’ final contest on March 8th would be an enormous confidence booster for Utah, given the fact that the Jazz have beaten the Rockets in the past, I actually don’t see that one as quite as vital for their confidence as the two remaining games against LA.

I’d feel much better about Utah’s chances against Houston after going 1-2 against them in the regular season than I would about their chances against LA after going 1-3 or 0-4, both of which are outcomes that are quite plausible.

If the stars align just right and the Thunder end up busting their way up the standings, it may not be a bad deal for the Jazz although I think it’s about the least likely match-up. Utah is currently 1-1 against OKC, but the second loss was by a narrow two points and in the midst of a grueling slate of games for the Jazz.

As long as Utah wins at least one of the remaining road contests against the Thunder, either on February 28th or March 11th, I’d feel good about the Jazz’s chances in the first round against them. Utah’s depth and defensive prowess would likely prove too much for OKC to handle, especially if the Jazz have garnered enough confidence to at least split the regular season series.

Finally, if Utah slumps down the stretch they could find themselves matched up in the first round against the San Antonio Spurs. Although Utah is currently 1-1 against them, common sense simply says this wouldn’t be a favorable match-up. Still, if the Jazz can win at least one of the remaining games against the Spurs, it could work wonders for their confidence.

The first of those contests is on April 2nd in San Antonio while the second is on April 12th in Salt Lake City for the last game of the season. Depending on how the playoff picture is turning out, the Spurs could very well be resting players for that contest so the prior game will likely be the most deciding for the Jazz.

Of course, with several contests against formidable Eastern Conference foes as well as a bout against the Warriors left on the schedule, the Jazz will have many other opportunities to face tough opponents and hopefully come away with statement wins that both keep them in a favorable place in the Western Conference standings as well as inject them with some much-needed confidence for the playoffs.

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Because as much as it pains me to say it, given how we’ve seen Utah perform so far this season against top opponents, I’d have a hard time believing they have much of a chance at all to even get out of the first round. While they’ve certainly had moments of brilliance this season, they’ve neither been consistent nor prolonged enough to prove indicative of the kind of team this is.

Therefore, this final stretch of 25 games is going to prove absolutely crucial for the Jazz. Hopefully the time off provided by the All-Star break will help rejuvenate them and allow them to come out energized, healthy and ready to roll through the tough competition they’ll face during the final month and a half or so of NBA action.