Schedule Spotlight: A Make or Break March

March 1st, 2017 | by Clint Johnson
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Dante Exum’s aggression, both offensively and defensively, has intensified recently. How he maintains that approach against top NBA point guards, such as John Wall, while not making mistakes is a major question down the regular season’s home stretch. (AP Photo/ Nick Wass)

State of the Jazz

The Jazz have given fans reason to believe — regardless what one believes.

The optimistic fan has plenty of fuel for hope. Entering the final 221 games of the season, Utah stands fourth in the Western Conference playoff standing. Home court, once only spoken of in cautious tones of possible ceilings for this team, is now a very real possibility. The Jazz boast the fifth best point differential in the league. The roster is healthy, rested after the All-Star break, and fueled by experience and motivation from last season’s unsuccessful chase of playoff position. To top off the signs of good things to come, Kevin Durant’s suddenly suspect knee makes a possible second round match up with the Warriors seem, if still daunting, not truly insurmountable.

There is every reason for hope, the optimist says.

Au contraire, retorts the pessimist.

Utah is only 12 – 18 against current playoff teams. While boasting a near-elite point differential on the season, those teams above Utah each boast a legitimate MVP candidate: Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry (Warriors), Kawhi Leonard (Spurs), James Harden (Rockets), and LeBron James (Cavaliers), while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin’s Clippers and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder look to climb the ranks. As great as Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert have been this season, nearly every potential rival for playoff position is led by a talent an order of magnitude greater than Utah’s franchise centerpieces. Combine that with 10 games this month against teams currently in the playoffs, and the pessimist sees ample reason to worry.

March’s 16 games will essentially determine which belief bears out.

 

Who’s Hot?

Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert: This category should really be re-named Who’s Hot Beside Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert. They continue to be consistently awesome. Hayward produced an incredible offensive February, notching 25.5 points per contest while shooting above 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 80 percent from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Gobert continued to rack up double doubles while producing 13.9 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per contest.

Joe Johnson: Quin Snyder’s decision to move Johnson to the position of stretch four off the bench behind Derrick Favors has worked extremely well for the veteran. Johnson scorched the nets in February, shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 51.4 percent from three. While those numbers likely aren’t sustainable, especially that mark from long range, the mismatch Johnson presents opposing power fowards is significant. Iso Joe looks to be settling into an ideal role right when veterans put things in gear to press for the post-season.

Derrick Favors: This season has likely been the most difficult of Favors’ career in almost every way. He’s obviously been physically compromised. His status and role on the team have both plummeted, falling from “future All-Star” to uncertainty. He even dealt with the psychological strain of being the Jazz player most mentioned in trade rumors. Yet while his overall numbers in February won’t blow anyone away – 9.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1 block –  astute observers will note this is not the Favors of earlier months. His worrying lack of lift seems to be dissipating, which has seen his field goal percentage in the restricted area jump from 51.3 percent in games prior to February to 66.7 percent in the last month. Most encouraging of all, Favors’ plus-minus for the month reached plus-4, a clear high for the season.

Who’s Not Hot (Yet)?

Trey Lyles: His skill is obvious. Unfortunately, so too have been his struggles, so much so Snyder could no longer ignore them: season averages of 37.8 percent shooting overall and 32.3 percent from long range. In February, that dove even further to 28.6 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from three. The past three games have found Lyles completely out of the rotation. With Joe Johnson’s successful claim to the stretch four role off the bench, Lyles looks to be a casualty of the team’s depth as the playoffs near.

Alec Burks: Throughout Burks history of injury, he has always been an enticing possibility as a dynamic scorer and shot creator off the pine. Unfortunately, while his health has born out hope of his on-court impact, so far, has not. In the past month Burks scored fewer than 7 points a game while shooting less than 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from the line. Most worrying, the team was outscored by 2.5 points per contest with him on the floor.

Schedule Breakdown

March Schedule

NBA.com

Games: 16 (7 home, 9 road)

Back to Backs: 3 (1 road/home, 1 road/road, back end of a road/home)

Key Stretch: March 8th – 20th sees the Jazz play 7 games, 6 of which are on the road, all against playoff teams including games at Houston and Oklahoma City and against the Clippers.

Likely Wins: 9 — MIN (3/1, second of back-to-back), BKN (3/3), @SAC (3/5, first of back-to-back, NBA TV), @DET (3/15, first of back-to-back), @IND (3/20), NYK (3/22, ESPN), NOP (3/27, TNT), @SAC (3/29), WAS (3/31)

Likely Losses: 3 — @HOU (3/8), @CLE (3/16, second of back-to-back, NBA TV), @LAC (3/25),

Toss Ups: 4 — NOP (3/6, second of back-to-back), @OKC (3/11), LAC (3/13), @CHI (3/18),

Must-Win Games

Oklahoma City on the road (3/11): Home court in the playoffs. Enough said.

Clippers at home (3/13): Ditto the above.

New York at home (3/22, ESPN): When the soap opera that is the Knicks comes to the Viv in March, it will be the first time the Jazz are a significant favorite to win a game in two weeks. Utah will be coming off four consecutive (and tough) road games and a potentially determinate contest against the Clippers in LA immediately follows. One can only guess what drama Phil Jackson’s mishmash of a roster2 will be experiencing at this point, but there’s no question the Jazz are the better team and should win the game. They need to.

Must-Watch Games

New Orleans at home (3/6, second of back-to-back): Sacramento’s baffling swap of DeMarcus Cousins for several strands of mardi gras beads make the Pelican’s a uniquely fascinating opponent for the Jazz. Where much of Quin Snyder’s challenge this season has been in finding effective ways to deploy each of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors in a stretch league, the Pelicans now all but demand the two play together so as to match up against Cousins and All-World power forward Anthony Davis. With those four players on these rosters, every one of these games becomes must watch.

Oklahoma City on the road (3/11): The Russell Westbrook Eats the World Tour. Enes Kanter back in Salt Lake and back from a series of DNP – idiotically punched a chair. Playoff position on the line.  What’s not to like?

Clippers at home (3/13): League and conference standings suggest the Jazz are ready to challenge for home court in the playoffs – but the Clippers won’t simply cede that position. Prior to injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers opened the season 14 and 2 and looked like legitimate title contenders. Home court in the West is a brutally earned prize, and to get it the Jazz will have to demonstrate they really are peers to the elite teams in the league. This consequential home game is a prime chance to do so.

Variable

(Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune)

Offensive Diversity

The Jazz are first in the league in points allowed per game (95.8) and third in defensive rating (101.7 points allowed per 100 possessions), neither of which is surprising. It is their offensive clout3 that will determine how they close out the season – and there are some encouraging signs that the team is finding ways to generate more diverse offense.

Favors rounding into shape presents the possibility of more action in high-low post sets. Both Favors and Gobert have proven willing and able passers to their respective fellow. In fact, no one on the team outside of Boris Diaw looks as quickly and consistently for front court players near the hoop as either of the Jazz’s centers. In February, Utah’s interior duo shot 74 of 115 in the restricted area (64.3 percent). If they can feed each other more such high percentage shots from the high post, it should add a valuable facet to the Jazz’s motion offense.

In addition, the notoriously slow Jazz have been giving the offense a little gas recently. Almost ten percent of their points in the past month have come in the fast break, while over 16 percent have come from cashing in turnovers. Both are monthly highs this season4 Snyder took the Utah job with “pace” as one of the guiding principles. The team just may be learning to apply it without compromising their defensive identity.

 

Finally, while signs have been intermittent, Dante Exum has started to show that he might bring something to the table this team lacks – elite speed. George Hill has respectable speed and quickness for an NBA point guard, especially when combined with his uncommon length, but Exum has a gear no other player on the team possesses, especially with the ball in his hand. Forty of Exum’s 61 field goal attempts in February came in the paint. He shot 62.5 percent on those attempts. If Exum can add apply that type of pressure to the rim with any measure of consistency, it presents a high efficiency option that opponents haven’t had to consider previously.

All the above may be signs the Jazz offense is developing into a more diverse attack that will be harder for opponents to check – or it could be mere blips on the radar in the course of a long season. Which alternative proves most accurate may determine whether the Jazz have a realistic chance to claim home court in the first round of the playoffs when April arrives.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

5 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Exum may no finish the way we would like, however, the ability to get to the rim is off the charts. After a summer of work outs he will put on muscle and strength. Look out rest of the league. His speed is filthy. His shot has excellent form, he needs to just shoot hundreds a day this summer. Glad he plays for the Jazz.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I wasn’t high on Exum in the draft because his combination of middling ball handling, poor shooting, and the indifference to defense he showed in high school. While many have lost enthusiasm for him, I’m much more confident in his future now than I was then. The defensive effort is there to go with the potential he always had on that end of the floor. The year lost to injury may end up being a blessing in disguise as he was constrained to lots of simple dribbling drills, which have improved his ball handling (though he still needs to work on that off hand in particular). And his shot is a clear area of focus with some improvement. Where I once thought his ceiling was Leandro Barbosa, I now believe he just might manage to become a genuine point guard, which is the only outcome that justifies his draft position.

  2. LKA says:

    I see where oneof your likely wins turned in to a blowout loss. They will now need to make two unlikely wins. Don;t count your chickens until they have hatched. If Jazz can pley like they did in milwakee and Washington yes but OKC and at home against MInn forget even a playoff berth.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      They’ll make the playoffs, there’s no question. I try not to overreact to either great wins or bad losses. Cases in point:

      OKC won by 3 points, at home, when they shot 68 percent from three on 22 attempts! Westbrook went 6 of 9 by himself. The Thunder shoot less than 33 percent on the season and Westbrook just over 34 percent. That shooting is so outrageous that the Jazz probably win that game 80% of the time given how it played out.

      As for the Wolves, it was the second night of a back to back where no single starter had a good game (Hayward led the starters in scoring with 13). That was easily the worst game of the year for our starting lineup when near healthy.

      Both games are outliers. Taken over the course of the season, the Jazz have won almost all the games they’re supposed to, many of the tossup games, and have lost almost all the games they are supposed to lose. I’d be surprised if there’s a major shift in that going forward. If they want home court, they need to win almost all toss ups and steal more of the games where they’re underdogs though.

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