Thirty-six game balls for 36 wins.
The Jazz have only playoff-bound opponents in their final four outings, so there’s no telling how much more mantle candy will be doled out in this space. Given the way the Jazz are playing — now 30-23 since mid December and 17-8 since the All-Star break — I also wouldn’t put anything past them.
Things get a little tougher if Gordon Hayward continues to watch large portions of games from the bench. Ben Dowsett has already covered why fatigue may be a factor for Utah’s leading scorer, and tonight Quin Snyder conceded to Ben that there is a “thought process” to keeping Hayward’s minutes low.
Snyder said there hasn’t been talk of shutting down the 5th-year star altogether, though. And that helps Utah’s chances of improving the win total. The Jazz aren’t quite as Hayward-dependent as they were at different spots throughout the year, but running the Memphis-Dallas-Portland-Houston gauntlet without his 19, 5 and 4 would be a tall order.
I don’t necessarily believe that the 36-42 Jazz have won their last game, but if they go out like a lamb, it affords the chance for some Eastern Conference playoff chasers to jump them in the league standings — and also jump behind them in preliminary draft order heading into the May 20 draft lottery. Right now, the Jazz’s pre-lotto pick could be as good as 9th or as low as 13th.
So we’ll have our eye on those teams as the seasons final week plays out, but if and when the Jazz DO pull out a win, we’ll be ready with more Spaldings to share with the star of the night.
But for now, let’s give out the latest five.
Jazz 94, Thunder 89 – Rudy Gobert
As much as anything, this game was about That Former Player. But I believe strongly in recognizing protagonists and not just using Game Ball as a passive-aggressive way to thumb my noise at someone. This really came down to Rudy or Trey Burke. Trey took over for stretches and had some really great moments, but he took 23 shots to get 22 points and was 1/8 on threes. That was enough reason to instead reward, rather fittingly, the player whose growth expedited the expulsion of the evening’s villain. Gobert was an absolute deterrent, and more than once Russell Westbrook steered away from The Stifle Tower. His net rating for the game was +65, which is UNREAL for a player who logged 41 minutes. He logged 13 points1, 15 boards, an assist, three steals and four blocks.
Also considered: Burke (plus 22-6-4-4), Trevor Booker (12 points filling in for an injured Derrick Favors, plus the best walk-off interview of the year).
Jazz 104, Timberwolves 84 – Trevor Booker
This was a remarkably tough one, with four candidates who all have a pretty solid case. In the end, Booker gets to join the club because one of the real narratives of this game was Booker stepping in Favors for two straight and the Jazz going 2-0. In the past, missing Favors has been a death knell for the Jazz, but Booker offered a season-high-tying 17 points on just 11 shots, grabbed 13 boards, and was everywhere on defense and hustle plays. And, as @RxMike12 pointed out, he probably deserves extra credit if we lump in everything starting with the OKC final buzzer as part of his performance.
Also considered: Really tough to leave Gobert out after the Wiggins block, the finger roll and the behind-the-back pass (not to mention 15-12-3 and ridiculous 31% on rim defense). Burke (19-6-3) and Gordon Hayward (22-6-5-4)2 are the others with really strong cases. Those performances could win GB on many other nights.
Jazz 98, Nuggets 84 – Dante Exum
Another impossible decision. Two of the Jazz’s most exciting young up-and-comers had very different career nights in the same game, and I can only give one game ball because of my own silly rules. In Gobert’s case, his career night came in the form of offensive moves we didn’t know he had on his way to 20 & 12 with perfect shooting from the field. For Exum, it was the game we’ve all been imagining where he’d control the game for stretches with speed and decision-making, all of which resulted in a Jazz season high 12 assists and Dante’s prettiest bucket of the season. Ultimately I bought @DaveN_Jazz’s logic that Rudy’s night, while super impressive, was a progression of what we’ve already seen, and that the evening represented a bigger turning point in the Exum journey.
Also considered: This one was between Rudy and X. The end.3
Jazz 101, Kings 95 – Rodney Hood
Finally, one I didn’t have to think too hard about. Hood had 25, but it was more about the how and when. While Hayward and Favors sat in a close fourth quarter, Hood racked up 13 points on 71% shooting while putting away a team on the road. As a rookie. He got to the line, he shot 83% (5/6) when contested, and just overall took over a game that was ripe for the taking over.
Also considered: Jeremy Evans added a nice 10 points in 8 bench minutes so Favors could rest, but this was really an easy call for Hood.
Jazz 103, Kings 91 – Derrick Favors
Favors was having one of those stealthily good nights, but there was no missing him in another studly fourth quarter. He was 3/3 for 6 points, 2 boards and 2 blocks during a 5-minute stretch of the quarter when the Jazz outscored Sacto by nine. Remember, this was just a two-point game heading into the final frame, so Favors’ efficient stint there at the end was truly a clincher. He sported a +27 net rating and totaled 18 & 11 in just 22 minutes and on 69% shooting. Wow.
Also considered: Hood (made a strong case for back-to-back Game Balls with another 20 point outing and a career-high 8 boards). Dante Exum (perfect blend of all the good stuff we’ve seen from him lately: some attacking, some facilitation, some shooting, some great D). Burke (a 60-foot shot, 11 points). Joe Ingles (quietly had a major impact on this one, including 6 assists).