Dallas and Denver are falling apart at the seams opening the door for the Utah Jazz. Heck, they're practically holding open a set of double-doors at the ESA for 'em, with a begrudging half-grin (something that in Dirk Nowitski's case might be coming from his right elbow).
What gentlemen! Jazz Nation thanks you kindly.
Denver is currently on a heinous slide, having lost three in a row, three in a row on the road (yeah, I know, Utah being one of only eight NBA teams over .500 on the road raises my eyebrows too, as well as the corners of my mouth), and have a leader battling hard to be back for a playoff push. We're with you coach Karl. Hang in there, man.
The Nuggets looked like a lock-of-a-team for the two-spot a month ago when the Mavericks suddenly went on a post-trade tear, ripping off what turned out to be an unlucky 13 in a row to make it a race to the proverbial checkers. A two-team race, by most accounts. If you happened to read a piece I did several weeks ago, you'll already know that we saw Dallas coming, not due to the trade that has been lauded by many as a championship-caliber move for Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler while dumping dead weight Josh Howard, but because they had an easy schedule coming to them headed to the line.
In that article I noted that Dallas lacked the offensive and defensive prowess to really compete for the Western Conference, which hasn't changed, and along with a far-smaller-than-expected positive point differential, a very good indicator of just how good you really are, they should still end up in the two-spot never the less thanks to the soft schedule.
However, Haywood is now unhappy with having to come off of the bench (what is it with Wizards players/former players? I'm looking at you Andray Blatche), while Butler has now fallen back to his pre-trade level of play, that wasn't stellar to begin with. The pair doesn't seem to be the saviors of a season they initially appeared to be. After getting great play from the pair in February, both have cooled considerably, the result being Dallas losing three of four after the unlucky 13-streak ended, two of which were to lottery-bound teams.
One of those two teams, the New York Knicks, just did Utah a second favor in the West race for playoff positioning by beating the Nuggets soundly in an amazing shootout-showdown between Carmelo Anthony and The Rooster, Danilo Gallinari. These wins really tear up Jazz fans because Utah owns the Knicks first-round pick this June. But, I contend that winning now is more important than trying to get a good draft position. There's ultimately nothing Utah or it's fans can do about it anyway. Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni could very well be on the hot seat, so counting on a future pick to be the difference-maker in a Jazz run at a title is getting more unlikely by the game anyhow.
By the way, before I get my other foot up on the soapbox, you should know that most models have Georgetown Hoya Greg Monroe on the map for the Utah draft lottery pick. He reminds me very much of Lamar Odom. A week ago he said he would stay in school, but we'll see. A stellar tourney performance can do wonders for a potential NBA ego.
But back to the future, the more immediate future...
Dallas may have blown it. They have had only only 11 games in the month of March, as of this writing, with six of those coming against sub-par, below .500 teams. This was when they were supposed to really roll, really make some tracks, leaving Utah in the dust. They haven't. And they aren't looking like they can get much better. They are giving 100-point games at virtually the same pace as they were before the trade deadline, meaning that defensive shoring up Haywood was supposed to provide hasn't been realized. Add to that, that Butler's offense hasn't raised expectations as much as was initially thought and a solid defensive performance or a solid offensive performance against this team can put them away in any given game.
They are masters of no particular domain. Just an average playoff team with a harder schedule in front of them than they have behind them at this point.
Dallas will be seeing Denver on March 29th, beginning a TV blitz of Nuggets games, a telling showdown for both squads. Until then the Nuggets have to finish off a roadie which they've started 0-2 on. They have five road games and five home games remaining, with three back-to-backs, and five of the six double-dips versus playoff teams. They have to try and suck in up in a difficult time, but haven't been good on the road all year long. Don't be surprised if they come home from the current trip to be one-and-four-in-their-last-five April Fools.
As previously predicted, not so much by me as by the numbers, Denver should fall to a game behind the Jazz by the end of 82 games. And contrary to previous numbers, Dallas has given Utah has a real live shot at that coveted number two bracket spot opposite the Los Angeles Lakers. But as coach Jerry Sloan likes to point out, you can't do anything about what the other team does. All you can do is worry about what you're doing.
The Jazz seem to have bought into this Sloan-ism, as well as his defensive philosophy, and the rest of it. All of it. When they run the program as it was designed to be they are as good as any team in the league. And it's made them into a unified team, a stuck-together juggernaut with real potential to do damage in the spring season.
They'll be the talk of the town soon enough. I'd suggest you start staking out your spot on John Stockton Drive now.