SALT LAKE CITY — With roughly one-third of the season remaining, the Jazz enter the home stretch set on finding a higher level of consistency and hopefully avoiding any major pitfalls.
At 36-18, the Jazz are 5.5 games behind the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers with likely little chance of overtaking them. But they are in fourth place, trailing the second-place Denver Nuggets by only 1.5 games.
“We’re in a really good spot,” forward Joe Ingles said during the All-Star break on his weekly radio show on The Zone Sports Network.
His statement has merit, considering the Jazz went into the break as the NBA’s hottest team riding a four-game winning streak. At the same time, accounting for the arduous scheduling that is a part of the grueling season, a five-game losing skid preceded the successful streak.
Mixed in there, the Jazz lost six of eight games earlier in the season and then one month later reeled off 10 consecutive wins. Immediately before the five-game losing streak, they won 19 of 21 games with one loss coming in overtime and the other by only 3 points.
Somewhere, amidst the crazy numbers, lies the truth. Depending on the moments in time, the Jazz are a mixture of awesome and average.
“There’s always going to be ups and downs, but I think these guys have been willing to be honest with themselves about where we need to be better,” coach Quin Snyder said after his team beat the Miami Heat in the final game before the weeklong break.
Unlike in recent seasons when the Golden State Warriors were the overwhelming favorite to represent the West in the NBA Finals, the conference is more wide open this year. With All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading the way, the Lakers are the favorite but also can’t match the depth of the Jazz and Nuggets.
The same goes for the Los Angeles Clippers, who have the fabulous tandem of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers, who are one game ahead of the Jazz in third place, seem to be intent on resting their two stars as much as possible ahead of the playoffs.
Although still only 28 years ago, Leonard will never be confused with Karl Malone and John Stockton in regard to durability. But with averages of 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists a game, in addition to already owning two NBA championships, Leonard can call his own shots as long as he’s ready for the postseason.
With a limited playoff pedigree, the Jazz can’t afford to sit their stars in preparation for the playoffs. To make a push for the conference finals, they need to win as many games as possible for seeding purposes.
It starts immediately after the All-Star break, when the Jazz play five consecutive home games before going on the road for the following five out of six games. Any slippage along the way could send them spiraling down the standings and headed for a disappointing exit in the first round.
Not that negative is the mindset.
“I think we’ve begun to develop an identity that can help us win,” Snyder said.
That identity begins with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the two foundation pieces coming off their first All-Star game appearances. With the game’s best rim protector in Gobert, the Jazz need Mitchell to flourish even more over the next two months leading into the playoffs.
Despite still only being 23 years old, Mitchell has the ability to dominate games — think James Harden and Damian Lillard, only with a better supporting cast.
In stark contrast to Mitchell’s first two years in the league, the Jazz can turn to the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson to provide scoring. Somewhere along the line, hopefully, Mike Conley will stay in a groove for more than a handful of games at a time.
Acquired in December for seldom-used Dante Exum, Clarkson has been brilliant as a reserve. Since Clarkson came over from the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers, the Jazz have gone 18-6.
“He’s been that piece that we’ve needed,” Ingles said.
And if all the pieces come together, maybe a glorious run awaits.