2018 NBA Playoff Preview: Utah Jazz
After losing Gordon Hayward in free agency, most people expected the Jazz to take a step back. For a while, it looked like they did. They were left for dead with a 19-28 record near the end of January. Then, they went on a 29-6 run ending the season as the hottest team in the league. They nearly climbed all the way to the three seed until they lost against the Blazers on the last night of the season. They enter the playoffs with 48 wins and a five seed despite missing their defensive anchor, Rudy Gobert, for nearly a third of the year.
I doubt even the most optimistic Jazz fan saw this season coming. Utah should have ample representation for the end-of-year awards with Donovan Mitchell (ROY), Quin Snyder (COY), and Gobert (DPOY) all deserving of top-three finishes. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Ricky Rubio has turned into a willing and effective jump shooter. With Gobert on the floor, the Jazz have the stingiest defense in the league, and Mitchell has provided just enough offense to keep pace. Without a proven superstar on their team, the Jazz are the epitome of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Biggest Strength: Defense
Outside of Gobert, the Jazz don’t have any true lock down defenders. That hasn’t mattered as Snyder has developed a team-oriented defensive system that plays to the strengths of his personnel. They aggressively guard the three-point line and funnel all penetration towards Gobert. They force teams to take midrange jumpers in an NBA landscape where those shots have become taboo.
The Jazz still don’t have anyone that can check Russell Westbrook one-on-one, but he won’t have an easy time finishing at the rim with Gobert patrolling the paint. Even so, Jazz defenders will likely sag off Westbrook and bait him into taking off-the-dribble threes and long twos in order to curb his efficiency. This will allow their off-ball defenders to stay close to their man, particularly Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder will have a tough time scoring in traditional sets and will likely have to resort to their Big 3 playing hero ball to find some offense.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of a secondary scorer
The stifling Jazz defense will try to keep the score as low as possible. But with the offensive firepower that the Thunder will roll out, Donovan Mitchell will need help putting up some points. Ricky Rubio has emerged as a dependable second scoring option as of late. Still, it’s tough to lean on a guy that just learned how to shoot a few months ago. Rudy Gobert will get some points on putbacks and dives to the hoop, but he will have a tough time manufacturing any offense against Steven Adams. Their best chance might be feeding Derrick Favors and letting him punish Carmelo down low. If the Jazz want to win this series, they can’t expect Mitchell to drop 30 a night.
Team’s X-Factor: Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell has been a revelation this year as the best “true” rookie (just kidding, don’t @ me). Usually when a rookie is carrying a team’s scoring load, that team is destined for the lottery (see: Phoenix Suns). Will he continue to buck traditional wisdom and put up a 40 spot or two? Or will he falter under the bright lights of playoff basketball? I don’t think the moment will be too big for him. What may be too big for him is Paul George and his seven-foot wingspan. I expect Mitchell to receive a healthy dose of George throughout the series, especially in crunch time. In the playoffs, every possession is crucial. So, it’s up to Mitchell to be efficient in his shooting and become a playmaker when he can’t find his shot against the longer George.
Player to Watch: Joe “Never Met a Pump Fake He Didn’t Like” Ingles
Ingles is a savvy player that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, but he’s incredibly valuable to the Jazz. He’s a significant glue guy that is always in the right position on defense and is a great facilitator on offense. He’s second on the team in assists with 4.8 per game. When he scores though, the Jazz become even scarier. In games that Ingles hits at least four threes, the Jazz are 15-3. He’s a 44% three-point shooter on the year. With all the attention that Mitchell gets on the perimeter and Gobert down low, Ingles should get plenty of opportunities to let it fly.
Estimated Playoff Run:
The Jazz lost the season series against the Thunder 3-1, but that will have little bearing on this series. The Jazz are fully healthy and are playing their best basketball of the year. Even without home-court advantage, I think the Jazz take the series 4-2. The Rockets will be waiting in the second round, and I think that’s where the Jazz’s run ends. My favorite color commentator, Eddie Johnson, always says, “Good offense always beats good defense”. And the Rockets have one of the greatest offenses we’ve ever seen.