The Utah Jazz clinched a playoff spot after handily defeating the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday evening by a score of 112-97.
In case you needed any further confirmation regarding just how crazy the insanely crowded Western Conference is, well, the Utah Jazz have just two games remaining in the regular season and on Sunday evening they became just the fourth team in the West to clinch a playoff spot. The fourth!
That means with just three days left of regular season NBA action, four West playoff teams have yet to secure their spot. And that’s just referring to getting a postseason bid, let’s not even go into how much the order could still shuffle up to this point!
But let’s ignore those other teams for a second. The good news is that with Utah’s 112-97 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday evening, they have indeed punched their ticket into the 2018 NBA Playoffs, a feat many felt was impossible less than three months ago. The win over LA marked Utah’s 28th win in their last 33 games which puts their record at 47-33, a game ahead of the fifth place New Orleans Pelicans and a game behind the third place Portland Trail Blazers.
The Jazz got off to a hot start in the contest against the Lakers as the game initiated with a 7-0 Utah run that saw their lead climb to 15 in the first quarter. Much like in the previous meeting between these two teams, though, the Lakers kept it close, remaining within single digits for much of the third quarter. But unlike last time, the Jazz were able to run away with it in the fourth. In the final period, they led by as many as 22 points en route to their 15-point wire-to-wire victory.
Utah’s pair of wings – Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles – were the story of the evening as they combined for 50 points. Mitchell finished with 28 on 9-of-18 shooting from the field and 3-of-7 from deep to go along with nine rebounds and eight assists. Ingles, meanwhile, had 22 points of his own while converting on 9-of-12 field goal tries and 3-of-6 from behind the arc to go along with 10 assists.
Derrick Favors didn’t have the greatest shooting night, but he was still monstrously effective as he posted a game-high plus/minus of plus-30 on the night while adding 13 boards. Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale both had big impacts off the bench with the former logging 18 points and the latter putting up 15 points on an extremely efficient 5-of-7 outing. Both of them were phenomenal on the defensive end as well.
Unfortunately, one of the negatives for the Jazz was the limited playing time of Ricky Rubio who continues to deal with a hamstring issue. He finished with just nine points in 18 minutes played. However, he was an efficient 4-of-6 from the field and made the most of his playing time by notching a plus/minus of plus-16.
Especially considering that Utah held a considerable lead for much of the game, it’s likely that they were taking things easy with Rubio in preparation for his first career playoff appearance.
On the Lakers’ side of things, rookie Josh Hart was far and above their most impressive performer as he finished with 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting. Tyler Ennis was also a problem off the bench as he chipped in 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting.
But when all was said and done, those contributions weren’t enough for a banged-up Lakers squad missing the likes of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Isaiah Thomas and rookie sensation Kyle Kuzma to arise victorious. Instead, Utah took care of business in a contest that some had circled as a trap game to clinch their second consecutive playoff berth.
Considering all this team went through this past summer when they lost both leading scorers in Gordon Hayward and George Hill, as well as the slow start they got off to that saw them at 19-28 two-thirds of the way through January, it’s almost hard to believe how high they’ve climbed this season. While they won’t be able to match last year’s win total of 51, they have a chance to finish at an equal or higher seed (they were fifth last year) meaning there has essentially been no regression for this new-look squad.
That’s exciting news not only for this year’s postseason, but also for what could potentially lie ahead in future years. The Jazz have an exhilarating young core and incredible complimentary pieces that are closer to contending for a championship than many folks give them credit for if they can just make a few minor improvements.
Their final playoff seed remains to be determined, but they currently find themselves all alone in fourth place and control their own destiny for the third seed if they can win their final two games – Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors and Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Regardless of how those bouts pan out or what comes of their playoff seeding, this season has been a thrill ride, an absolute success and an amazing stepping stone for the future. Make no mistake about it, the Jazz will be a real threat in the playoffs this season and have very well solidified themselves as a dangerous opponent in the Western Conference for years to come.