The final 49 days of the regular season are shaping up to be a bloodbath in the NBA.
Following the blockbuster trade between Philadelphia and Brooklyn and the fact that the top eight teams are separated by just seven games, the Eastern Conference will be a war of attrition.
The Phoenix Suns have the inside track to the top-seed — and the best record in the NBA — in the Western Conference, but the injury to all-star Chris Paul could put that in jeopardy. While Golden State and Memphis are expected to be the Suns’ biggest challengers, just 7.5 games separate Utah (4-seed) and the Clippers (8-seed).
“Our energy is different,” Rudy Gobert said before the all-star break. “I feel like something happened within our team. … I feel like we’re a team that’s trying to accomplish something.”
Here are five things to know before the second half gets underway:
Show your Jazz pride on game day by wearing a jersey, showing us your favorite memorabilia + MORE for a chance to win a trip to a road game
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 16, 2022
1.) Road Challenges
There’s no putting it lightly — if the Jazz want to make a play at moving up in the standings, it will have to come on the road. Utah will play away from the comfortable confines of Vivint Arena in 14 of its final 24 games, including five and six-game road trips.
The first road trip comes right out of the break.
After a home game against Dallas, the Jazz will play five games in nine days, starting in Phoenix and ending in Dallas. The good news is Utah will play Houston, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City in between, three teams that rank in the bottom of the standings in the Western Conference.
The final big road trip of the season is as brutal as it gets, six games in 10 days that will start on the east coast and end in southern California.
Utah will play a back-to-back against New York and Brooklyn, the latter of which should feature Ben Simmons and Kevin Durant suiting up for the Nets. Then come games against Boston and Charlotte, two teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Utah wraps up the trip with a final showdown against Dallas and a rematch of last season’s playoffs against the Clippers.
The Jazz are currently 15-12 on the road this season but have lost their last five games away from Vivint Arena. To win in the postseason, teams have to win on the road — and for Utah, they’re going to get a taste of it before the playoffs begin.
“That’s how you build those winning habits,” Donovan Mitchell said. “And I can’t say those were there earlier in the year. Now we’re all holding each other accountable and all communicating, and that’s allowing us to take that step.”
“It’s treating every possession as important. … We didn’t execute and it gave them life.”
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 17, 2022
2.) Health Should Be A Factor
When Utah came up short in the postseason the past two seasons, the state of the team’s health was a significant factor why. With Mitchell and Mike Conley dealing with severe lower-body injuries, the Jazz fell to the Clippers last year.
But to mitigate those potential injuries in the future, head coach Quin Snyder and his staff elected to prioritize health first and foremost this season. Anybody dealing with minor issues has found time to rest and recover throughout the year.
Rudy Gobert and Mitchell have missed extended time dealing with injuries, while prized free-agent acquisition Rudy Gay got a late start to the season and has been sidelined with right knee soreness. Also, Conley has rarely played in back-to-backs in an attempt to limit his minutes heading into the postseason.
Bojan Bogdanovic has played in 56 of the 58 games, with Jordan Clarkson and Royce O’Neale checking in at 55 and 54 games played. Conley, 52 games, is the only other Jazz player to have missed less than 10 games. That means that five of Utah’s top nine rotation players have missed at least 12 games this season.
But now returning from the much-needed break, the Jazz will be fully healthy – although Mitchell did miss the all-star game with an upper respiratory illness (non-COVID related). It’s a good thing the team is fully stocked because when everyone is available, it’s clear Utah has the talent and experience to make a serious run at a title.
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” – MLK#BlackHistoryMonth #BlackExperienceMonth @UtahJazz pic.twitter.com/oN9bEeRHNN
— Mike Conley (@mconley11) February 15, 2022
3.) Tough Second-Half Schedule
Not only will the Jazz be on the road for the majority of the second half, but the caliber of teams they’ll be playing is also expected to be amongst the toughest in the league.
Eleven of their 24 games will be played against teams currently ranked in the top-6 of either conference. When bumping that to the top-10 of each conference — those currently in the play-in — that number jumps to 17, including 12 straight from March 14 through April 5.
The good news is that the Jazz should be in control of their own destiny if they want to stay in the top four. They face Phoenix twice and have single games against the Warriors and Grizzlies, but will take on the Mavericks three times.
When rolling and in a rhythm, the Jazz are extremely tough to beat — they have three separate win streaks of six games or more, starting the season 7-1 and 26-9. The offense is tops in the game and the defense, when active and communicating, is capable of being one of the best.
“That’s the mark of a team that’s composed, and you understand you’ve got to go through adversity to get to the top,” Mitchell said. “It’s having fun with the game, even in our losses. I can’t say our losses were fun, but you look at the effort. … The energy is just different.”
4.) What Will The Final Rotation Be?
The next 24 games will probably be both a blessing and a curse for Snyder.
When starting the season, the Jazz were praised for their superior depth, mixing and matching with opponents, and not putting heavy minutes on their stars. They currently have 12 players on the roster who’ve averaged at least 10 minutes per game this season.
That’s the blessing for Snyder, knowing he has one of the deepest teams in the league ad won’t have to run his stars into the ground just to keep their current postseason standing.
But the curse might come when he has to start finalizing the roster. With the playoffs so close, Snyder will want to finalize his rotation and get players used to playing more minutes before mid-April rolls around.
Mitchell, Gobert, Conley, Bogdanovic, O’Neale, and Clarkson will take up most of the time on the court. But what happens to Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gay? Do Eric Paschall and Trent Forrest get some late run?
It won’t be easy making those final decisions, but Jazz fans can rest assured that Snyder knows what he’s doing. One of the top coaches in the league, he knows that this team needs to make a serious title run, and that’s what he’s going to do.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 15, 2022
5.) Does Donovan Mitchell Finally Get The Recognition He Deserves?
Richard Jefferson said it best.
Following Utah’s victory over Dallas on Christmas night in which Mitchell dropped 33 points, the ESPN announcer had some complimentary things about the fifth-year guard out of Louisville.
“Whoever decides these all-NBA teams, I can’t believe he (Mitchell) wasn’t on any of them. … They must not be watching the games because there’s no way he isn’t a top-15 guy in the league,” Jefferson said of Mitchell during the game.
While others around the league feel the same about Mitchell, the fact that he has yet to make an All-NBA team is a complete travesty.
For the third time in his career, Mitchell was chosen to the all-star game — not a bad stat considering it’s just his fifth season in the league. Mitchell’s third all-star appearance is tied with Boston’s Jayson Tatum for the most from the 2017 draft class, making Mitchell’s selection at No. 13 look like an absolute steal.
In what’s shaping up to be one of the best seasons of his career, Mitchell leads Utah in scoring with 25.4 points per game, adding 5.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. He’s shooting 45.4% from the field and 34.6% from beyond the arc, showcasing his ability to score from every level.
He’s one of two players in the league to average 25 points, 4.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game, along with LeBron James.
The battle to be named all-NBA will be challenging as many talented players are vying for the coveted spots. But Mitchell has proven, day-in and day-out, that he belongs in that upper echelon of stars — and now it’s about time the rest of the league takes notice.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 17, 2022