SALT LAKE CITY — On Jan. 27, the Utah Jazz defeated the Dallas Mavericks to move into the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference. Utah has held onto that spot for 90 days (and counting), but is it suddenly in jeopardy?
After dropping two straight to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, the Jazz's lead over the Phoenix Suns is down to just 1.0 game — and the Suns hold the tiebreaker. The LA Clippers are also lurking, just two games back as the season enters the final stretch.
First, the good news: All the projections still have the Jazz starting the playoffs as the conference's top team. Basketball-Reference still gives the Jazz an 81% chance of getting the No. 1 seed, FiveThirtyEight projects the Jazz to finish two games better than the Suns, and The Ringer's model also gives Utah the best shot of finishing at the top.
More good news: The Jazz have the easiest finish to the season among the three top West teams. Utah has the 8th easiest remaining schedule in the league. The Suns have the 7th most difficult finish and the Clippers have the 18th. So on paper, the Jazz should finish as the No. 1 seed. If only it were that easy. Utah was heavily favored in both games against Minnesota — and, well, you know how that ended up.
Which brings us to the bad news: The numbers are shrinking — and fast. On Monday, before the Jazz lost to the Wolves, Basketball-Reference gave Utah a 92% chance of finishing No. 1 and FiveThirtyEight projected a four-game cushion. So another surprise loss or another surprise Suns win, and Utah could be sliding down the standings.
"For us, it would be great to have it," said Rudy Gobert when questioned about the No. 1 seed. "But if we don't, the most important thing is to keep getting better and come into the playoff playing great basketball."
The thing is, the Jazz aren't playing great basketball at the moment. In their last five games, they are 2-3 and have just the 10th-best net rating in the league. All those games were played without Donovan Mitchell, who is sidelined until at least this weekend with a sprained ankle.
"No matter if we are winning or losing, we miss his presence," Bojan Bogdanovic said of Mitchell. "Just to be there and lead our team, just by his presence. You don't have to be there to hit a clutch shot but just knowing that he is there and that you got a guy that you can rely on, it's big-time for us."
The Jazz have missed Mitchell's calming presence, especially late in games. All three of the losses since his injury have come in close games where Mitchell is Utah's clear go-to option. The Jazz, though, are far more worried about being healthy for the playoffs than where they end up being seeded. They aren't going to rush Mitchell back just to get a couple of extra wins to secure the No. 1 spot.
"For us, every night is a way for us to improve and we know that obviously we are going to need to get Donovan back soon, but, for us every night is an opportunity to get better," Gobert said.
The Jazz have been relatively injury-free this season, especially compared to a number of top teams. To keep that stretch of luck going, Utah has rested players lately in hopes to keep them fresh for what is expected to be a gauntlet of a postseason.
Even as the No. 1 seed, the Jazz could be looking at facing Steph Curry, Luka Doncic or Damian Lillard in the first round. Then it'll just get tougher from there. Which begs the question: Does the seed even matter?
"It truly is tough to win in the playoffs, regardless of what seed, regardless of who you have on your team," Mike Conley said. "I mean, it's all about matchups at the end of the day. I've been a part of teams when we were the eighth seed and beat the one seed, been a part of teams when we were the five seed and we made it to the conference finals, so no matter what your seed is it doesn't matter, you have to be able to refocus and re-lock in and take it team by team, game by game, because it's not promised you get to the next round, no matter how good you did in the season."