SALT LAKE CITY — On an April night in 2019, the Utah Jazz had a choice to make: Go for their 50th win or go for what appeared to be the better playoff path.
A Jazz loss that night against Denver would have dropped the team into the sixth seed, which would have set up a date with Portland instead of a matchup with recent postseason nemesis Houston.
Utah opted for the more, some would say, virtuous route. A big night from Donovan Mitchell (he matched his career-high with 46 points) led the Jazz to a victory. Their reward? A gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Rockets.
A year later, the Jazz faced a similar choice: Win and likely face the Rockets again (for the third straight year, no less — Houston is 8-2 over the first two series), or lose and have a bit more control in where they finish and who they play in the first round.
In the fourth quarter, the Jazz looked to send a message, “Sixth seed or bust!” Or maybe it was just, “Anyone but Houston or bust!”
Dallas scored the first 11 points of the quarter and went on a 27-7 run. Utah’s response to the rally? A mild shrug as players who spent the year playing in Salt Lake City Stars jerseys finished the game out.
“We were impacted the last few years by teams at the end of the year making certain decisions that are best for them,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said last week.
Maybe they felt it was time to take matters into their own hands. If they prefer to play the Nuggets, well, they might as well lose some games so that’s at least possible.
Utah isn't the only team that appears to have done some gamesmanship in the bubble. Teams have rested stars and coaches have deployed some odd lineups — and done so at some curious times. Sure, it might be, as Snyder has said, all in the name of health and young player progression. Likely, though, it's jockeying for playoff spots.
With a high seed not coming with homecourt advantage, why not play to get the best matchup possible? So it's not surprising the Jazz would like to avoid the Rockets — even if that means matching up against a higher-seeded team. Both the Los Angeles Clippers and Nuggets use a traditional big man that Rudy Gobert can match up against. That alone might make them a more appealing matchup.
But with only a few days left of seeding games, the Jazz can’t control everything.
With one seeding game remaining (Thursday against San Antonio), the Jazz can finish either No. 5 or No. 6.
- For the 5th seed: The Jazz beat the Spurs and the Thunder lose both their remaining games
- For the 6th seed: Anything else
Utah could still face either the Nuggets, the Clippers or, yes, the Rockets in the first round. But things are beginning to become more clear — or at least more probable. The Rockets' loss on Tuesday to the Spurs significantly hurt their chances of climbing up from the No. 4 seed, and the Mavericks' loss to the Blazers means Dallas is now locked into the seventh seed.
Here's how it breaks down (updated with Tuesday's results):
Clippers (47-23; two games left)
- For the No. 2 seed: Go at least 1-1 or have Denver lose a game.
- For the No. 3 seed: Lose out and the Nuggets finish 2-0.
Nuggets (46-25; two games left)
- For the No. 2 seed: Win out and the Clippers finish 0-2.
- For the No. 4 seed: Lose out and the Rockets win out.
- For the No. 3 seed: Anything else.
Rockets (44-26; two games left)
- For the No. 3 seed: Win out and the Nuggets finish 0-2.
- For the No. 5 seed: Lose out and Thunder win at least one game and Jazz lose. Or lose one game and Thunder win both games.
- For the No. 4 seed: Anything else.
The playoff jockeying will surely continue over the next few days as teams try to manipulate the standings to get their best postseason paths. The good news for the Jazz: They’ll at least have an even clearer picture when they tip off against the Spurs. And that'll mean they'll likely get to make another decision come Thursday.
“There are always going to be decisions that are made that impact other teams,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Things that other teams do are going to impact us. It’s really impossible to tell.”