The Race to the Playoffs Starts Now - The Downbeat - #671

You know the NBA adage that the regular season doesn't matter? Not true in the good old Western Conference.

The tenth place team in the Western conference currently has a .556 winning percentage. .579 is the 8th seed. In old-school 82-game lingo, that's 46 wins in 10th, 48 wins for 8th seed. And 11th place Minnesota (sitting at 8-10, or .444) would be 7th place in the East. In this season's numbers, about 38 wins will get you the 8th seed.

Business as usual in the West.

Two weeks ago it wasn't like this. Memphis was below .500, for example. But things have evened out and 10 quality teams (11 if you include the Peskies) are going to slug it out for 8 playoff spots. The Jazz currently sit at 5th place: 2 games behind second place Denver and 1 game ahead of the 10th place Rockets. It's going to be a wild ride to the playoffs starting right now.

Because of #1, when you lose because Jose Calderon hits a shot at mid-court with the shot clock winding down, it's going to be a tough loss. Or when Linas Kleiza torches you. Again. Or when Earl just doesn't have it. Or when Howard and Hayward combine to go 1-14.

However, losses happen. The Mavs lost to the Peskies last night. The real issue is consistency. Most of us know about the advanced stats Hollinger has put together for goth teams and playoffs. Millsap currently ranks 5th in the league in PER. Hollinger's automated PowerRankings have the Jazz at #14, just behind the Blazers and just above the Rockets. His Playoff odds project Utah at 37 wins and the #8 seed—and a 67% chance of making the playoffs.

A newer kid on the Advanced Stats block is a group called numberFire. They created what they call NERD Rankings for both players and teams. You can read an explanation of them here. These rankings (calculated before to last night's loss) put the Jazz at #7, project 41 wins and a 47% chance of making the playoffs. Their player rankings put Millsap as the 8th most efficient player in the league. These rankings say that Paul + 4 average players should end up at 15 games over .500 (in an 82-game season). So basically Paul Millsap, according to their data, is personally responsible for every game above .500 the team is right now.

Which rankings are most accurate? Whichever says our team and our players are the best, right?

David Locke perfectly framed the Young Player Conundrum in his "Emptying the Noggin" after the game. Speaking of Hayward and Favors:

[Their youth and inconsistency] is what makes it so tough to give these minutes to these guys.

Neither Gordon or Derrick has much of any experience in these circumstances, this is the growing process and those minutes are more valuable than others.

I think Locke harps on Favors unnecessarily (he didn't set the world on fire, but he played very decently). But the point remains: the kids will make mistakes in these circumstances that may cost wins. At the same time, those specific opportunities will have greater benefit to their long-term future (and the team's long-term future) than any other playing time.

I don't think anyone doubts that if Hayward reaches his potential, his all-around-game would make him the best wing on the team. I also don't think anyone doubts that Favors can become a monster offensively and defensively. And I hope we can all agree that the team is better off if they can get there sooner than later.

I'm glad Ty's giving them reasonable chances, even on off-nights. Hopefully these guys can be more successful as the opportunities continue to come.

The Jazz definitely missed Al Jefferson last night. In crunch time they had on the floor: a guy who air-balled another three and missed 3-4 free throws, a guy who was terrified to shoot, a guy who was a fan punching bag for about 92 straight games, a guy the refs hate, and Paul Millsap.

I've been one of Al's harshest critics, but there's no doubt he's improved a ton since even the start of this season. One more guy with the ability to score and make good decisions (without worrying and fretting like Gordon) could have made the difference against the Raps. Millsap can't do it all himself—even if he is the PF Terminator.

Let's hope Al's not out too long.

I love living in a Twitter world in which we get to hear from players after the games. I know there's newspaper quotes, but it's fun to hear from our heroes without being pressed for a response—particularly after big wins and losses and see they feel just like us:

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Postscript: I had a crazy Jazz dream two nights ago:

The Jazz made the playoffs and their first round opponent was the Kings. In the first game the Jazz simply could NOT hit a shot. And the Kings could NOT get a rebound. It was the same over and over: Jazz shoot, miss, get rebound ... repeat. Millsap couldn't score. Al couldn't. Hayward couldn't. Nobody could.

Except Favors did score twice. But the Jazz rebounded those made shots and the Kings still couldn't get the ball. It got to the middle of the second quarter with the Jazz leading 4-0. Favors threw up a shot, and it missed (of course). But suddenly Ty's assistant coach Jerry Sloan came out of nowhere, rebounded the ball, and went back up to make the layup. He looked at the Jazz players and told them "That's how you f****** do it!"

While the refs huddled together and debated whether the points should count, Sloan walked up to DeMarcus Cousins and punched him in the face. The refs decided to allow Sloan's points because it was so awesome to see him send Cousins to the ground, and each ref gave Jerry a firm handshake.

And then I woke up.

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