Utah Jazz’s First Round Playoff Opponent More In Doubt Than Ever

Jan 8, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) center Rudy Gobert (27) and guard George Hill (3) react during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Utah Jazz 88-79. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 8, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) center Rudy Gobert (27) and guard George Hill (3) react during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Utah Jazz 88-79. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports /

While one might expect a clearer playoff picture with the regular season winding down, the Utah Jazz’s future first-round playoff opponent is still as much of a mystery as ever.

For the better part of the 2016-17 season, the narrative surrounding the Utah Jazz has been that while they’re a solid team as evidenced by their strong record, they’ve struggled to compete against the upper echelon teams in the league. Prior to last week’s win over the Houston Rockets, the Jazz hadn’t defeated a Western Conference playoff team since December 18th, so there definitely was some truth to that sentiment.

However, with wins in the past ten days over both the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, it would appear that Utah is beginning to reverse their fate in that regard. Sure, the recent losses to the Thunder and Cavs were frustrating, but given that Rudy Gobert didn’t play at OKC and Utah was in the second night of a back-to-back in Cleveland, those two are at least somewhat justifiable.

Most notable was Utah’s recent win over the Clippers which was just their third victory in the last 20 tries against LA and the first in 10 tries against them in Salt Lake. Particularly given the fact that the Jazz and Clippers are currently the fourth and fifth seeds in the West and could very well end up playing one another in the first round of the postseason, it was a much-needed victory.

And prior to that game, the Jazz held a narrow one-game lead over the Clippers in the standings, meaning the victor in that crucial match-up would end the night in possession of the fourth seed. Utah’s win of course gave them that reward while also increasing their lead over LA to two games.

From there, many suspected that by looking at the two teams’ remaining schedules, that it was nearly a guarantee that regardless of who finished fourth or fifth, the Jazz and Clippers would indeed face each other in the first round of the playoffs.

While that could still certainly be the case (and would be if the playoffs started today), given the Clippers’ recent and surprising slump, they find themselves in serious danger of sliding down the standings, meaning that Utah’s future first-round opponent is becoming more unclear than ever.

After losing three straight games and six out of ten, LA now finds themselves just a half-game ahead of sixth place Oklahoma City and one game ahead of seventh place Memphis. Both of those teams have gone through mini-slumps following the All-Star break but have both been playing well of late as the Thunder have won four in a row and the Grizzlies have won three.

Their recent resurgence combined with the Clippers’ struggles have put all three of those teams right within striking distance of one another. Therefore that fifth seed is more up for grabs now than ever and depending on how those three teams perform down the stretch, it would seem that there’s about an equal chance for any one of the Clippers, Thunder or Grizzlies to become Utah’s first-round foe as the fifth seed.

Of course, Utah still has a difficult path ahead to keep a hold of the fourth seed themselves. Purple & Blues’ contributor Taylor Griffin went into detail earlier today about what it will take for them to do such. Ideally, despite the obstacles he brought up, Utah will be able to overcome them and will end up with that fourth seed which will virtually guarantee that they face one of those three aforementioned fifth-seed candidates in the first round.

However, given that the Jazz have a daunting remaining schedule and just a 3.5 and 4-game lead over the current sixth-seeded Thunder and seventh-seeded Grizzlies, respectively, Utah has the possibility of dropping to any one of those spots.

From there, it’s still difficult to determine at this point who they would face. The lone seed that seems to pretty much be a lock is the third-seeded Houston Rockets who are too far behind to realistically move up to the two-seed, but too far ahead of the Jazz to realistically fall. Therefore, if Utah does drop to the six seed it’s essentially a guarantee that they’ll play the Rockets.

I actually would not mind that match-up at all, but that’s a different story.

If Utah drops to the fifth seed, at this point determining their opponent is the same mystery as it is currently at the fourth seed. If they dropped all the way to seven, it’s still not clear who their opponent would be either.

Although the Golden State Warriors have been atop the standings with the Spurs in second place pretty much the entire season, the Spurs briefly took over the one-seed earlier in the week by virtue of a tiebreaker. However, given that since that point the Spurs dropped a game while Golden State won two straight, the Warriors now hold a narrow 1.5-game lead for the top seed.

However, Golden State has struggled of late in the absence of Kevin Durant and there’s undoubtedly plenty of time for San Antonio to make up a 1.5-game deficit and overtake that top spot. Therefore, if Utah does drop to seven they’ll be in for a tough match-up with the unenviable task of taking on either the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs.

So as you can see, there’s a number of scenarios that still have yet to be worked out. Essentially all we can safely assume for now is that Golden State and San Antonio will finish either 1 or 2, Houston will finish 3, Utah, LA, OKC and Memphis will finish in some order in the 4-7 seeds and either Denver or one of the teams on the outside looking in will finish eighth.

Obviously rather than worry about match-ups, at this point Utah’s only focus should be on winning games and doing everything within their power to earn home court advantage since being able to start a series out and play a potential Game 7 in Vivint Smart Home Arena will be much more crucial than trying to speculate and gamble on finding the most favorable match-up against three teams that will likely prove about equally as difficult.

If I had my choice based on what’s realistic at this point, I’d like to see Utah finish fourth and play Oklahoma City as the fifth seed, while having the Rockets and Clippers do battle at the three-six match-up and hopefully have the Warriors slide to the two-spot where they’d face off against what’s been a tough match-up for them in the Memphis Grizzlies.

This would also allow Utah to avoid Golden State until a potential Western Conference Finals, though taking San Antonio on in the second round doesn’t sound much better.

In terms of the eight-seed, I don’t have much confidence in any of the teams vying for that position standing much of a chance against the eventual one-seed and therefore helping out the Jazz, so while I’m mainly indifferent about that one, I suppose I’ll go with the Nuggets to face off against the Spurs.

Related Story: Who Should Utah Jazz Fans Cheer For to Earn the Eighth Seed?

Of course, just because it’s what I prefer certainly doesn’t mean it’s what will actually come to fruition. Considering the many battles taking place for playoff positioning throughout the Western Conference and how close many teams are to each other in the standings, there’s no debating that the final four weeks of the regular season are going to be a battle.

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And despite what we may have projected or speculated all season long, with just 13 games on the Utah Jazz’s regular season schedule, their future first-round playoff seed and opponent are still as unclear as ever.