Fifteen left. One-five.
Eight are on the road (seven of those against teams at or below .500), and seven are at home (including three elite teams). The playoff race is coming down to the wire, which is where we’ll start this week’s Salt City Seven.
The bags are packed, the team jet is fueled up, and the postseason is one the line.
After dealing with the Suns on Thursday, the Jazz will head out on their final multi-game road trip of the season. And it may well decide whether the Jazz make the playoffs or not.
This is a monumentally important 5-gamer, largely because it starts with three tough-but-winnable games against .500-and-below clubs, of which Utah just about has to win at least one to bolster their hopes of playing beyond April 13. Prediction site FiveThirtyEight gives Utah a 44%, 41% and 40% chance of winning in Chicago, Milwaukee and Houston, respectively. Any one of them would be a huge get for Utah. Here’s why.
The fourth game of their road trip is at Oklahoma City. Let’s assume that one is a longshot1. Then, the Jazz start their final 10 games by visiting Minnesota. Including that trip to the Twin Cities, seven of Utah’s final 10 opponents are teams currently at .500 or below. The other three games are home games against the Spurs, Warriors and Clippers.
Let’s say the Jazz beat Phoenix on St. Patty’s day, and let’s say they find a way to go 7-3 in those final 10. That’s good enough to get them to 40 wins. Based on how the rest of the Western Conference playoff aspirants are projecting2, 40 might be good enough to get in, but a misfire against Dallas or any other unexpected Mav win changes the calculus. A 40-42 record leaves no margin for error, at least if teams follow their current trajectories.
A win at Chicago, Milwaukee or Houston would make it possible for the Jazz to get to 41 or even 42 wins, taking some pressure off those final 10 and making them less dependent on other teams faltering. If the win comes in Texas, it could even help them knock the Rockets off of an expected win. If the Jazz somehow got two of those three, I’d be just about ready to declare the 2015-16 Jazz a playoff team and you could start planning your playoff viewing parties for the third weekend in April.
It’s a huge chance for Utah to steal a W from the L column, and for guys to add playoff games to their résumés.
The point guard controversy is over, at least for now.
As of this moment, Shelvin Mack had played his way in front of erstwhile starter Raul Neto, even trumping the Brazilian rook in some areas where we tend to think of him as much better. The number above is his three-point percentage as a Jazz man, just a titch higher than Neto’s .430. He’s also assisting more per 36 minutes (6.1 to 4.3) and has a better Net Rating, both overall (4 to 2.4) and with the other four starters (15.7 to 7).
There are still some things to watch with Mack. His turnover ratio needs to come down and, as we covered last week, there are still some spacing problems that will persist until teams decide his recent shooting spike is for real and demands some attention. The Jazz also need to decide how comfortable they are taking the ball out of Hood & Hayward’s hands to allow Mack to create.
But on the whole, Mack’s recent play has suspended the point guard debate.
“Just keep grinding and sticking to it and, you know, great things will happen. Also, the past few days I’ve been able to watch more film. Coach Quin is helping me out, getting in certain situations and certain spots and I was just able to make it translate to the game.”
-Mack on his recent strong play
This was from the Wiz-Jazz postgame scrum, and SCH’s own Andy Larsen followed up to find out specifically what “certain situations” Mack and Snyder have been working on. Mack mentioned that he mostly played with pick-and-pop bigs in Atlanta, but with Utah’s bigs — whose strengths lie more in their roll game — he’s had to relearn the spacing and where to find angles. No wonder it seems that Mack suddenly cracked a code, with 16.1 points and 7.5 assists over his last four games.
In honor of Mack’s solid week and a huge Jazz win, we’re going to look at a play that was part of the only double-digit assist night of Utah’s season.
On the surface, it’s a pretty simple play. At its core, this is just a high pick-and-roll where Mack makes a good read of where the helper’s help comes from. But it’s the set-up I like here.
After Mack gets rid of the ball at the top, he runs the loop play that you’ll recognize because it has been responsible for about a gajillion Tony Parker buckets and assists over the past several years. He gets a switch on the first screen in the loop, so now he has Richard Jefferson on him. As he gets close to the Hood screen, Rodney fakes to the ball, freezing Shumpert long enough that he can’t show as Mack goes around. So by the time Mack gets the pitch from Trevor Booker, he just has the momentum and matchup to wipe his guy off on the screen and pull Booker’s man into help.
Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert has spaced to what the Jazz call the “dunker”: the baseline area behind the plane of the board, essentially one step and a takeoff away from a dunk. They park him there a lot because it’s one way to create offensive spacing when you don’t have shooting bigs. In this case, it makes it an awkward cover for Love, who is the helper’s helper responsible for containing the Booker role. As soon as Love goes that direction, Rudy knows he has the angle to dunk right over him, so he signals for the lob and packs it.
Suddenly, we’re drowning in Spaldings.
We had just one game ball to give out in the last two weeks combined, but the Jazz won all three of their games in this Salt City Seven cycle, so let’s get to it.
Jazz 114, Wizards 93 – Mack
There is no way to go anywhere but Mack on this one. Game-high scoring, a career high, and a sudden discovery of a three-point shot made him the story of the game, full stop. Welcome to the brotherhood of the Game Ball, Shelvin!
Jazz 108, Kings 99 – Favors
A 28/14/4/3/1 line is a Game Ball outing if ever such a thing existed. Hayward played a really good game, too, and Gobert had a ridiculous Net Rating for the evening (+63.4), but Favors had a dominating performance on both ends and was an easy call for me and the folks who chimed in on Twitter.
Jazz 94, Cavs 85 – Hood
This game was won with a collective effort on the defensive end, especially on the perimeter. The Jazz made sure they didn’t allow Cleveland’s handlers inside, and as a result Gobert and Favors only had to defend six shots each at the rim. So how do you pick one guy? Mack had his third straight really good game (and the Jazz’s first 10-assist performance of the season). Trey Lyles had a ballsy fourth quarter and a +81 Net Rating. But this one goes to Hood, and it’s not particularly close. Hood had 28, on just 16 shots and took over the offense in a way the Jazz needed without Hayward.
After playing Phoenix, the Jazz are about to head out onto a very important 5-game road trip. They have four total games between now and the next SC7:
Then they visit OKC before their trip to Minny kicks off a pretty friendly final 10. We’ll talk about those games next week.
Nothing else matters but this tweet.
— Tibor Pleiss (@tibor_pleiss) March 17, 2016