First half summary: You expected an improved Utah Jazz team coming into the season, but who knew they’d head into All-Star break with the league’s best record? Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said the team is on a mission and we can all tell. Stifling defense has been the team’s hallmark with the Jazz consistently running opponents off the 3-point line towards Rudy Gobert, who dominates in the paint as a rim protector. Gobert came into March ranked second in rebounds (13.1) and second in blocks (2.7), and he was tied for No. 2 in the league in double-doubles (24).
Offensively, Utah came into March with the third-highest offensive rating (117.0) and third-best 3-point percentage (39.8), as seven of the nine players comprising the regular rotation were knocking down 37% or better from long range. They can beat you in a variety of ways, which makes the Jazz incredibly difficult to defend. They’re an elite 3-point shooting team that can also consistently put pressure on the rim. Their trio of All-Star caliber players in Mitchell, Gobert and Mike Conley — who was again snubbed for an All-Star appearance — possesses plenty of experience. Mitchell and Royce O’Neale are the most inexperienced players among the starters, and they’re both playing in their fourth season. Then there’s Utah’s bench, which is led by Jordan Clarkson (17.9 ppg, 37% from deep). There aren’t many weaknesses on this team. But if we’re nitpicking, the Jazz could use another perimeter defender.
Biggest question going into the second half: Can the Jazz hold it together in the playoffs, where they haven’t reached the West finals since 2007?
Mitchell and Denver’s Jamal Murray blessed NBA fans with an epic duel in the first round last season, but Utah surrendered a 3-1 lead series to the Nuggets for an early exit. Obviously, that disappointing experience burns in the psyche of the players, and it’s clear they’re using it as motivation to blow through the field in the regular season. The desire is there. The chemistry is there. So, now it’s a matter of sharpening everything and staying healthy for the postseason run.
Playoffs or lottery?: Arguably the most complete team in the West, the Jazz are headed to the postseason likely as the No. 1 seed if they can stay healthy. At the start of the season, most pundits predicted the Los Angeles Lakers or LA Clippers to be the last team standing in the West. But the first half of the season indicates otherwise, with the Jazz poised to make plenty of noise in the West.
Over a long season of attrition, the Jazz expectedly showed signs of exhaustion playing in the second game of a back-to-back on Feb. 27 against the Orlando Magic. With the NBA looking to squeeze in the second half of the season in a compressed window, their 124-109 win could prove to be valuable training for what the Jazz and the rest of the league will inevitably encounter coming out of the All-Star break. “We know some games you don’t really have the legs,” Gobert said. “In those games, we have to make sure we have our heads.”
— Michael C. Wright