When the Miami Heat went through the Pacers, Bucks, and Celtics to reach the Finals in last year’s playoffs, it gave the ¾ of the league that much more hope that you don’t necessarily have to be the most dominant household name team to be a championship contender. The Miami Heat entered the Orlando bubble playoffs as a 5 seed, after catching fire in the bubble and hitting their stride at the perfect time. There weren’t many people picking the Heat to make the Finals, just like there aren’t many people who think the Utah Jazz are a serious title contender.
The Jazz have the best record in the NBA at 17-5, and have won 13 of their last 14 games. Donovan Mitchell has returned to playing at his usual All Star level, Rudy Gobert is still a dominant defensive presence, along with his increase in shooting percentage this year. When you think of the Jazz, that is the duo that pops into your head. But it’s the supporting cast for the Jazz that has really helped propel this team into regular season dominance. Mike Conley has improved tremendously from last year, he looks more comfortable and in command when he is running the offense. After how disappointing his 2020 campaign was, it’s a great sign to see him playing at a high level again, and his playmaking ability has revolutionized what this team can do night to night. Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic are both averaging about 2.5 threes made per game, both shooting over 40% from three on the year.
One of the biggest wildcards for this team has been the improvement in Jordan Clarkson’s game. Jordan Clarkson is the perfect sixth man for the modern NBA. He can shoot, handle the ball, and facilitate the offense when Conley or Mitchell is off the floor. He is currently averaging around 25 minutes per game, and in those 25 minutes Clarkson is averaging 17.7 points per game (only behind Mitchell at 23.0 ppg). On top of Clarkson’s improvement, the Jazz currently have 6 players who are averaging 4 or more threes taken per game, and all 6 are shooting above 40% from three. Quin Snyder has this team taking more threes than they ever have, and also allowing less threes than they ever have.
The Jazz have already played 4 games this season in which they outshot opponents by at least 20 long range attempts. In fact, Utah has taken 228 threes more than their opponents on the year, almost 100 more than any other team. It’s clear Snyder and the Jazz have found their identity, and are sticking with what they do best; which is shooting threes and playing defense. There’s a lot to be said for a team that knows what their identity is. That’s why I go back to the 2020 Miami Heat comparison again because they were definitely a team that knew their identity. The Heat knew Jimmy Butler was their clear leader, but realized how important playing team oriented basketball in the playoffs was.
Now that I’ve praised the Jazz and highlighted all their strengths, I’d like to talk out why I think the Jazz will make a run at it, but ultimately won’t be in the Finals. While everything they are currently doing is sustainable throughout a playoff run, I can’t realistically put them above the two LA teams. Both have 2 bonafide superstars, and awesome supporting casts that are both playing at a higher level this season. After last year’s collapse, it looks like the Clippers are out for revenge this season, currently tied with the Lakers for second place one game behind the Jazz at 17-6. The Lakers look better than they did last year, the additions of Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell have solidified the starting and bench units, while LeBron James contnues to age in reverse, currently shooting a career high 40% from three. It’s not just the two LA teams. After getting off to a slow start, the Denver Nuggets have climbed their way back to 12-9 and 4th in the conference. The Nuggets combination of talent is special, especially with the dominance that Nikola Jokic has shown so far this year. Depending on where the Nuggets finish in the West, I can guarantee you, no teams want to see the Nuggets in the playoffs this year.
At the end of the day, I just don’t see Utah winning a 7 game series over either of the LA teams. They would definitely make a run at the Nuggets, but I think ultimately it wouldn’t matter because to get out of the West, the Jazz will have to beat the Clippers or Lakers in a series. I could definitely see the Jazz making a run at the Western Conference Finals with the way they’re playing right now. But when it comes to Game 5 or 6 in a late round playoff series, it seems like teams always find a way to expose Rudy Gobert’s weaknesses and play him off the court. The one weakness of the Jazz as a whole right now are a lack of versatile wing defenders. Without Gobert to anchor down the paint, teams like the Lakers and Clippers will find a way to exploit that, even when Gobert is on the floor.
All in all, the Jazz have surpassed most expectations up to this point in the season, and I believe their regular season success will continue throughout the year. They could easily finish as a top 3 seed in the West, and could definitely make some noise in the first two rounds of the playoffs. I won’t count them out completely because they are currently playing like the best team in the NBA, and that doesn’t just happen by chance. But when it comes to the WCF and NBA Finals, my gut feeling is that they will fall short at one point or another. But like I said, they are a really good team and anything can happen in the playoffs. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see come playoff time, if the Jazz can finally get over the championship hump.