Look ahead: Utah Jazz can use upcoming stretch as launch pad

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images) /

For the Utah Jazz, they have another opportunity to grow a long winning streak in the upcoming stretch of games.

The Utah Jazz are in Los Angeles tonight to take on the Los Angeles Clippers. Led by superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers are hot off a win over their city rivals on Christmas day and are looking to win their first championship in franchise history.

This will undoubtedly be a tough game for the Jazz to pull out a victory, and my colleague Jared Woodcox predicted a nine point loss in tonight’s bout. If the Jazz drop tonight’s battle in Los Angeles, they will have lost two of three games for the week.

But fortunately for Quin Snyder and his crew, they will have an opportunity to climb up the standings in the Western Conference before too long. Following tonight’s game against the Clippers, the Jazz will come back home for a short break before playing the Detroit Pistons on Monday night.

The Pistons are in an identity crisis this year and are floundering to grab the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Much of their identity last year was the All-Star caliber play of Blake Griffin, reinventing his game to fit the modern NBA. This season they’ve hired a new coach, they have a dilemma on their hands of whether to keep or trade Andre Drummond, and Griffin hasn’t been himself all season long thanks to injuries.

Utah should be able to take care of business on their home court against such a team as Detroit. After that game is finished, the Jazz will have a break running through the New Year’s holiday to integrate their new pieces on the roster. Jordan Clarkson specifically should be a little more familiar with the playbook next Thursday when the Jazz take on the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls, much like the Pistons, are mired in mediocrity. They are led by a rookie head coach Jim Boylen who has been around the game of basketball for a long time, including time as an assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. But there seems to be an awkward fit with the coach and players; do they really respect Boylen as their head coach? Should they be in the playoffs already two years removed from trading away Jimmy Butler?

Something has to give in Chicago, and should be an easy win for the Jazz. It shouldn’t require extensive minutes from Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Bojan Bogdanovic to put this game away, and the same thing could be said for the next eight games after Chicago.

The Jazz will face several opponents well below .500 in that stretch, including the New Orleans Pelicans (twice) and New York Knicks who are both near the bottom of their conferences. The only potential bumps in the road are the Brooklyn Nets (16-14) and the Sacramento Kings (fighting for a playoff spot).

There are no back-to-back sets during this stretch, and this is an excellent opportunity for the Jazz to move up in the standings. During the past couple of weeks they’ve had a little help from the rest of the league. On Christmas day the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets both lost to lottery bound teams, and the Lakers dropped their home game to keep the number one seed within shouting distance of the Utah Jazz.

If Jordan Clarkson can lead the Jazz bench and go off on several mediocre opponents in the next 10 games, that will keep Donovan Mitchell and the starting five fresh for the challenging stretch of games leading into February. That was the objective Dennis Lindsey and the Jazz front office hoped to accomplish when they acquired Clarkson.

via KSL.com:

"‘We can tell that Donovan was getting stretched, Bojan was getting stretched,’ Lindsey said. ‘I think Quin’s done a really good job of using the starters to help the bench along, and that got even more compromised with Mike’s hamstring injuries..‘I think we were looking at any player that can be an offensive substitute that we could play through, that would allow us to appropriately rest Donovan and Bojan, in particular,’ Lindsey said. ‘We tried some units with Joe Ingles with the second unit, and it just didn’t work out real well.’"

Ideally, Mike Conley will return before January 20th when the Jazz take on the Indiana Pacers at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah will need Conley’s presence as they face several Western Conference rivals jam packed in a 16 game stretch.

From January 25th to February 22nd, the Jazz will face the Rockets, Spurs, Mavericks, Nuggets, and Trail-Blazers, playing each team two separate times. This will be good preparation for the playoffs as they could very well be staring down one of these teams face to face in a seven game series come April. Mountain Mike has to be playing and playing well for the Jazz to have their best chance at going anywhere in the playoffs.

The best case scenario is that the Jazz bench gels in the soft stretch of schedule, giving the starters the proper amount of rest to prepare for the grueling month of February. Conley returns and helps the front office get a proper measurement of how well-equipped the Jazz are to make some noise in the playoffs.

The worst case scenario is a continuum of the five game winning streak; Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz starters have to grind out 36+ minutes every game and play some intense fourth quarters. Despite regaining Mike Conley off the injury report, the Jazz run out of gas during the month of February and go on quite the losing streak, putting the final nail on the coffin for their home court advantage hopes.

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Ultimately, the next 10 games will be crucial for the Jazz’s hopes of having a successful season. The expectation was to go farther than the five game exit they had in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. Making for a competitive series in the Western Conference semi-finals would meet the expectations attached to the roster overhaul last summer; going deeper into the conference finals and NBA finals would be gravy.