Sports / Utah Jazz / 
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots during an NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Is Utah a contender? Why the Jazz are suddenly the darlings of the NBA

By Ryan Miller, KSL.com | Posted - Jan. 25, 2021 at 9:01 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz are suddenly the league's darlings. An NBA-best eight-game winning streak — with seven of those wins coming by double-digits — will do that.

ESPN has them at No. 3 in their weekly power rankings. The same goes for The Athletic, USA Today, and NBA.com. Sixteen games into the season, the Jazz have entered championship contender status.

"They are trying to win a championship right now, and I think they are capable of doing so," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said on Saturday. "They are where we were three or four years ago."

Three or four years ago, the Warriors were in the middle of a five-year run where they won three championships. That's high praise. Is it warranted? While the Jazz might not have the traditional look of a contender — Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert aren't top five players in the league, for example — there are some early signs that show Utah's current run isn't just a stretch of good play.

According to the Cleaning The Glass stats website, the Jazz are the only team with a top-five offensive rating and a top-five defensive rating. Utah's defensive rating of 105.6 is second only to the Lakers and its 116.6 offensive ratings is fourth in the NBA.

With how the Jazz have won this season, it's important to use Cleaning The Glass's metrics because they eliminate garbage time. Remember those meaningless minutes after the Jazz went up by 40 against the Warriors and pulled everyone last Saturday? Those aren't counted.

And the Jazz have had a lot of those meaningless minutes of late. Utah has led by 15 or more for about 26% of its minutes played this season, the second-highest rate in the league. During the current streak, Utah has yet to trail in the fourth quarter and seven of the eight wins have been by double digits.

But, wait, there's more.

The Jazz have hit 20 3s in a game six times so far this season; they had done that just six times in their entire history leading into the 2019-20 season. Utah is also third in effective field goal percentage and first in opponent effective field goal percentage.

The offense has been elite; the defense has been elite. Everything right now is working. So, yes, the praise is warranted. The question is how sustainable is it all?

"What coach Kerr said is definitely a compliment, but we have to focus on what we do," Mitchell said. "The biggest thing is being focused on the details, and that's where it's at for us. We haven't been past the second round, so we're looking at it game by game with the little details. We have to continue to do that."

It's those little details — especially on the defensive end — that have allowed Utah to go from a middle-of-the-pack squad to a budding contender.

It's been nearly three weeks since Utah last lost a game — against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden (the same team they'll play Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Vivint Arena). But if you ask Rudy Gobert, that game might not count as a win in the standings, but it does for the season as a whole.

"I think the loss against the Knicks, I see it as a win because that's when we understood what we needed to do as a team to be great," Gobert said Monday. "Before that, we were very up and down. We'd play well one game and struggle the next game. We were really dependent on if we're gonna make 3s or not. Now we really understand that when we defend and we try to be the best defensive team every night, for some reason the shots fall more easily."

After the New York game, the Jazz were 17th in the league with a 110.7 defensive rating. In the eight games since, that number has dropped to 100.8, second-best in the league. With a defense like that, the Jazz can afford to miss a few more shots — they just haven't.

Now, it stands to reason that Utah will come back down to earth a bit. Simply because some of the stats are just silly.

They have five high volume 3-point shooters that are hitting over 40% from deep — and none of those are named Bojan Bogdanovic, the team's best 3-point shooter last season. Donovan Mitchell is averaging 27.3 points per game over the win streak while shooting over 50% from the field and 51% from the 3-point line. Mike Conley is leading the league in plus/minus for the season. Utah is on pace to make the most 3s per game in the history of the league — all while having a top-five defense.

Those are circa 2017 Warrior level stats. No wonder Kerr, and just about everyone else, is suddenly so complimentary. But the Jazz know that nothing is won in 16 games — at least not until the playoffs.

"We know that we have a ways to go," Mitchell said. "We have to continue to do the little things. We have to keep the foot on the gas."

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