Seven more nights of NBA regular season basketball. And they’re big ones. For this last regular-season installment of the SC7, we refocus the playoff race, starting with a mammoth game on this weeks’ schedule.
Games like Monday’s are why we watch basketball.
The Dallas Mavericks’ 5-game winning streak and the Jazz’s own 10-4 stretch have set up a massively important penultimate game. The Jazz players and coaches can’t look past the Clippers or Nuggets, but we can. And Monday is going to be massive.
Moments like this are what we love about sports. Two surging teams. A ton at stake. Similar philosophies, but very different personnel. The old guard versus aspiring party-crashers. This shouldn’t just feel *like* a playoff game; it should *be* a playoff game, in every sense of the term. Bring it, Salt Lake.
Utah’s young roster hasn’t seen many (any?) games of this magnitude and consequence. The Mavericks, for the most part, have, and that’s a colossal advantage. But if Utah can fight through the big-game yips, they’re seen as big favorites. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model, which is blind to human elements, sees Utah as 72% likely to win. Basketball isn’t played in spreadsheets, though, and anybody with a feel for these teams knows that it’s probably much closer odds than that in real life.
But let’s assume the 538’s odds are on point and use them to paint the picture of what’s at stake on Monday based on the likely outcomes of each team’s other three games. The site gives Utah odds of 55%, 51% and 75% of beating the Clips, Nuggets and Lakers, respectively, while Dallas’ chances against the Grizz, Clippers and Spurs are 69%, 21% and 30%.
What the system doesn’t know is that the Spurs might have half their team on ice in their season finale at Dallas, or that Utah might come up against the Lakers on a night when they’re actually motivated to win. But let’s take those numbers at face value and run the math.
Of course, Utah still has other ways of making the playoffs that don’t involve catching Dallas. Memphis’ remaining game odds give them a 29% chance of falling to where Utah could overtake them either by record or via tiebreaker, and (UPDATED)3 the Jazz’s 2-game lead in the loss column on 38-41 Houston gives them about a 74.8% chance of staying ahead of the Rockets4
But no single game will impact the Jazz’s chances like beating Dallas. And that’s why we’ll all be watching.
Dallas isn’t the only big game in Utah’s final seven nights of the regular season.
Instead of citing some obscure stat for “By The Numbers,” let’s stay on the theme of playoffs and look at Utah’s magic and tragic numbers.
To finish ahead of Memphis: magic number 7, tragic number 2
Any combination of seven Jazz wins or Memphis losses allows Utah to leapfrog the Grizz thanks to the tiebreaker. Memphis is the underdog in all of its remaining games, with odds ranging from 8% (at Golden State) to 31% (at Dallas).
Dallas: magic 5 (if one of the wins is against Dallas; 6 otherwise), tragic 4
A win on Monday counts as two against the magic number because it’s both a Jazz win and a Dallas loss.
Houston: (UPDATED) magic 3, tragic 5
When your magic number is equal to or less than the number of games you have left, that means you control your own destiny. The Jazz control theirs.
If you’ve heard Quin Snyder spend any amount of time talking about his basketball philosophies, you’ve definitely heard him talk about side-to-side movement.
Teetering the court from strong side to weak side has a lot of benefits, especially for a team with a pretty equal-opportunity approach. It’s one way to create space, as we have talked about in previous “X & Ohhh” sections. It also confuses teams guarding against the pick-and-roll, as most teams determine who comes in to help based on who’s on the weak side. If you’re focused on staying home on your man on the ball side and then suddenly the ball flips to the other side for an elbow P&R, it could take you a split second to realize that your defensive role on the play just changed. That split second is enough for smart decision-makers to exploit.
But here’s another wrinkle we haven’t looked at. Check out how Utah has been using side-to-side passing to allow their bigs to seal better paint position on rim dives.
In both cases, the ball handler pulls the screener’s man to the right, so now the Jazz big has the opportunity to seal his man away and set up shop right in front of the rim. The only obstacle is the weakside defender coming in to squeeze that paint position, and Utah solves that both times by doing sort of a relay pass to the outside that comes back to the middle, where now it’s a Jazz big versus a defender on his back5. It’s kind of the lateral equivalent of the high-low play6: in both cases, the defender’s position makes the direct pass to the big an awkward one, so they make two passes instead of one and get one of their bigs deep paint access.
I’ve seen this a lot lately, so I ran it by the walking playbook that is Coach Nick7. He pointed out that this is the same action the Stan Van Gundy-era Magic would use to get Dwight Howard open at the rim. The Jazz have been using it the same way, and it has been working.
“Hell yeah, AB.” — Alec Burks https://t.co/uc5i0T0ymK
— Aaron Falk (@tribjazz) April 7, 2016
Hell yeah indeed. Burks appears poised to make a return to basketball this weekend. He’s expected to debut against the Clippers8, the same team he was facing on December 26 when he fractured his left fibula.
It’s fair to wonder how much Burks’ reintegration will hang up a Jazz team that has been humming, with its only losses in the last nine games coming against three elite squads. And with the Jazz having a 21-34 record with Burks in the last two seasons9, the questions around his long-term fit are even understandable on a level.
But forget all of that for now: this is a huge boon for Utah, which has frankly been relying too heavily on guys who are fringe NBA players. Burks might have some flaws, but his 53% catch-and-shoot eFG% should be like water in the desert for Utah, which has been getting subpar shooting from erstwhile backup SG Chris Johnson (21% shooting and 13% from three in his last 11).
Jazz 98, Wolves 85 – Rudy Gobert
This is one of those games where it’s hard to express Gobert’s importance with stats, but let’s start there: 10 points (4/4 shooting), 14 rebounds, three blocks. But it was the way he made Karl-Anthony Towns look, you know, human that sealed it for me. Utah’s second-half defense was 81.7, and if you watched the way Gobert controlled the defensive paint, you know he was a chief architect of that stinginess. Other candidates: Trey Lyles looked to have his first game ball in the bag before an 0-for-7 second half, but another solid Gordon Hayward outing (22-5-3, +20) was Rudy’s main competition.
Jazz 101, Suns 86 – Hayward
Derrick Favors was brilliant offensively, but I felt like Hayward had the better overall game résumé: 22-5-5, +18 and did most of that despite really a committed game plan by Earl Watson that involved having PJ Tucker attached to Gordon’s hip. It’s also worth mentioning that this one was won in the 2nd quarter, in which Hayward’s net rating was +96.4 thanks in large part to his excellent wing defense and four assists in the face of defensive pressure. Rodney Hood also bounced back nicely (17 points, 7 assists) after an 0/6 start.
Hello, Basketball World! ⭐️🏀 pic.twitter.com/jnfkhnO7CH
— Salt Lake City Stars (@slcstars) April 4, 2016
We couldn’t end the week without mentioning the news that the Wasatch Front has a new basketball team.
Having their D-League affiliate down the street instead of 350 miles away will undoubtedly help the Jazz run an integrated program that makes it easier for prospects, picks and even staff to develop within the philosophy of the team.
And the nice, crisp visual identity introduced got mostly positive reviews as well. There’s really very little downside to this news, unless you’re a basketball nerd in Boise. Even then, Idaho Stampede games never drew more than 2,800 or so, and that was for weekend games. On weeknights, they generally had about 1,600 bodies in the building, according to box score attendance figures. Those 1,600 to 2,800 people will need to find something else to do with their evenings in Treasure Valley; for just about everybody else, this is a very positive move by the franchise.