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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz made a statement this past week by winning two out of three contests against Western Conference playoff contenders.
On Wednesday, the Jazz knocked off the third-ranked Houston Rockets in Houston, with a convincing 115-108 victory. They followed it up with a short-handed loss at Oklahoma City, as the Jazz got extended playing time for rarely used players without Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. On Monday night, the Jazz came from behind to defeat the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers 114-108.
Despite Houston being the higher seed, and beating them on the road, the Jazz's win over the Clippers was a better sign for their playoff future. Before Monday’s game, the Jazz had lost 17 of 18 to the Clippers, including nine straight at home.
If the playoffs started today, the Jazz would face off against Los Angeles in a 4-5 matchup, with the best-of-seven series starting in Salt Lake City.
Winning a late-season game against the Clippers will give the Jazz much-needed momentum heading into the series, assuming the Jazz don’t overtake the Rockets for the three seed, and the Clippers aren’t passed by Oklahoma City for fifth.
Had the Jazz lost Monday night, the Clippers would have pulled even with the Jazz for the fourth-best record in the West, owning the tiebreaker for home-court advantage in the first round. By winning this game, the Jazz have left open the possibility of evening up the season series with a win March 25 in Los Angeles.
With 15 games remaining in the season, the Jazz are four games back of the Rockets and are unlikely to overtake Houston for the third seed. The Jazz have a two-game lead on the Clippers, and a 4-1/2 game lead on Oklahoma City for the sixth seed. Barring a major streak of wins or losses by any of these four team, the Jazz and Clippers are almost guaranteed to match up in the first round. Houston will face either the Thunder or the Memphis Grizzlies in Round 1.
Sitting at 42-25, the Jazz have 15 games remaining on the season. The Jazz have a .608 win percentage against the teams remaining on their schedule. If they were to continue at that pace over the final month of the season, the Jazz would end the year with a 51-31 record. A 51-win season would mark the most for the Jazz since they finished 53-29 in 2009-10, the last season of the Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur era in Utah.
Can this team reach similar heights to the last great Jazz team?
The 2010 Jazz were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, getting swept by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, after knocking off the Denver Nuggets in the first round. The Jazz won their first-round matchup despite starting the series on the road against Denver before closing out the series in Game 6 at home.
Regardless of whether the Jazz start this series at home or on the road, this Clippers team is a tougher matchup than the 2010 Nuggets. Though the Nuggets won 53 games that season, they didn’t have the star power this Clippers team has between Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. In 2010, the Nuggets were without head coach George Karl in the first round of the playoffs as he battled cancer. The Jazz coaching advantage with Jerry Sloan against former Jazz great Adrian Dantley allowed the Jazz to easily capture the series.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has a championship ring from his head coaching stint in Boston, while Utah head coach Quin Snyder has never been a head coach in an NBA playoff series. The Clippers' big three, Paul (46), Griffin (48) and Jordan (50) have played a combined 144 playoff games in a Clippers uniform, while the Jazz big three of Gordon Hayward (4), Rudy Gobert (0), and George Hill (0) have a combined four postseason appearances in a Jazz uniform.
Despite the lack of experience in the postseason in Utah, the Jazz will rely heavily on the experience of the veterans they added this past summer when the playoffs begin.
Joe Johnson, who Jazz fans should expect to see close games at the power forward position for the rest of the season, has 101 career playoff appearances, while Boris Diaw has appeared in 108 postseason games. Hill has 75 postseason appearances between his time with the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers at the point guard position. In addition to those three, how Hayward, Gobert, Rodney Hood and Favors handle their first significant postseason minutes will likely determine the Jazz success in this season’s playoffs.
The Jazz got an important win Monday night against the Clippers. In addition to their win last week on the road against the Rockets, it appears the upstart Jazz are peaking at the right time. With the Jazz gaining momentum over the season’s final 20 games, the Jazz appear primed for a postseason run of the likes fans haven’t seen since Williams, Boozer and Okur donned a Jazz uniform.