Given the recent struggles of the Utah Jazz, particularly against playoff-caliber teams, and the notable improvement of their Western Conference foes, the team is in serious danger of dropping to seventh place in the West.
After falling in heartbreaking fashion to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, the Jazz followed the loss up with one of their most uninspiring efforts of the season in an abysmal 107-80 home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz looked flat-footed and absolutely outmatched from the onset and the result was a disheartening defeat.
And while it’s easy to dismiss the loss as just “one of those nights” or justify the poor showing given that it was the second night of a back-to-back and the first game home after a draining road trip, the fact of the matter is that the Jazz let a very winnable game slip away.
Sure, it’s something that happens to every team. In an 82-game season there’s bound to be plenty of slip-ups such as that. However, now that the Jazz have lost two straight following their seemingly hot start after the All-Star break, they actually find themselves in a bit of a perilous position.
Although the Clippers’ lopsided defeat at the hands of the Rockets last night allowed the Jazz to keep a hold of fourth place in the West for now, there’s a very good chance that they won’t be there for long.
The battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference is going to be tightly contested as just 1.5 games separate the fourth through seventh seeds. The fourth place Jazz are currently trailed by the Clippers at a half-game back, the Grizzlies at one game back and the Thunder at 1.5 games back.
However, LA is finally getting back to full strength now that Chris Paul has returned to the lineup following a long stint missed due to injury. Blake Griffin has also had plenty of time to recover as well and it’s looking like the Clippers will be in shipshape condition for the stretch run. Memphis, who has also struggled with some injuries this season, is likewise back at near full strength.
Then there’s the Oklahoma City Thunder who in all honesty improved drastically at the trade deadline by making an underrated move to acquire Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott from the Bulls. Both players address key needs for OKC as McDermott adds a knockdown shooter from deep while Gibson adds toughness, experience and depth in the frontcourt.
The edge those two bring to the Thunder was on full display in OKC’s recent win over the Jazz and the Thunder have been red hot of late, winning seven of their last ten including all three since acquiring McDermott and Gibson at the trade deadline.
Not to mention, while current overall records might say otherwise, each one of these squads has proven better than the Jazz in head-to-head match-ups as they’ve all been too much for Utah to handle. The Jazz are currently 0-2 against the Clippers, 1-3 against Memphis and 1-2 against OKC.
The recent improvements to the health and/or depth of each of these teams and their noticeably favorable head-to-head record against Utah alone would be enough to make the Jazz’s situation seem quite dire. Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there. In fact, it gets much worse.
It’s no secret that the Jazz have struggled to compete against elite teams this season, posting just a 12-18 record against current playoff teams and having lost seven straight games against Western Conference playoff squads. If that’s a trend that’s set to hold up (as it appears very likely to) then Utah is in for big trouble with what lies just ahead.
Sure, they’ve got a nice three-game slate where they’ll play the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans (although they did just lose to a lackluster Minnesota team so who knows what will happen), but immediately after that things get brutal.
Utah will then visit the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder in consecutive road games, will host the Los Angeles Clippers, then will go on a daunting four-game Eastern Conference road trip to face the Pistons, Cavs, Bulls and Pacers. The game against Cleveland comes on the second night of a back-to-back and the contest at Indiana will be Utah’s fourth game in six nights.
Thus with seven games against playoff foes and six of them coming on the road, that could be a potentially devastating stretch for the Jazz, especially considering their woes against such high-caliber teams so far this season. With Oklahoma City a mere 1.5 games behind the Jazz, even a minor two or three-game slump could prove extremely costly.
And unfortunately, considering how poorly the Jazz have played against the likes of the Thunder and Clippers (and that’s not even mentioning their collapse against a hapless Minnesota team last night), projecting a mere two or three game slide could in fact be conservative.
Of course, it is easy to get caught up in the highs and lows of any given moment and while Utah’s back-to-back losses, particularly the one against Minnesota, have been beyond deflating, that small sample size certainly isn’t representative of how the year has gone for the Jazz and doesn’t signify that their season is suddenly doomed.
It should however stand as a warning to the Jazz and a reminder that especially in this final stretch of the season, every game is precious, every opportunity is important and every mistake can prove fatal.
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After having to face an innumerable amount of injuries and plenty of other obstacles this season, it’s incredible that the Jazz have been able to claw their way up to fourth place in the West to this point. Nevertheless, they’ll have to play much better than they have of late and find a way to step up their game dramatically in key upcoming match-ups if they hope to stay there.
Otherwise, we could very likely see the Clippers, Grizzlies and Thunder all surge their way past the Jazz by as soon mid-March. And unfortunately, things don’t get any easier after that as the Jazz will still play a slew of playoff teams including once against the Warriors and twice against the Spurs to close out the season.
Thus, while falling down the standings isn’t a pleasant scenario to think about, it’s a true possibility that the Jazz must come to terms with and fight with everything they’ve got to prevent it from becoming a reality.