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Why This Year's Utah Jazz Playoff Push Is Different: The Downbeat #1864

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The Utah Jazz's playoff hopes have been trending in the wrong direction. Let's talk about why every game left is significant.

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz's playoff hopes have been trending in the wrong direction until a weekend win over the Pelicans. Let's talk about why every game left is significant. Also: cereal, FanPosts, and a Utah photo legend. It's your Tuesday Downbeat, and it's magically delicious.

So we've had a lot of playoff talk recently, and rightly so. The Jazz have 20 games left, and they can't get over the ninth-place hump, despite some fortunate results from Dallas, Houston, and Portland. I don't have any wisdom or predictions about Utah's fate. The talent to win is there. The consistency isn't. It could go either way.

In some ways, this feels similar to the "playoff push" situations of recent years. But there's a key difference, at least to me. The difference is that this Jazz team NEEDS playoff experience, maybe more than previous ones did.

I'm especially thinking of the way the 2011-12 season ended, with the Jefferson- and Millsap-led Jazz sneaking into the first round of the playoffs only to be swept by San Antonio. That team had gone about as far as it could go with the talent it had; the eighth seed was pretty much the ceiling. To me, it didn't really matter whether that team made the playoffs, because they weren't going anywhere as constituted at the time.

But this Jazz team is different. They haven't come close to their ceiling yet. I still believe the core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert can be a successful, playoff-winning team, recent evidence notwithstanding.

Trouble is, it's getting late for them to prove it. Hayward and Favors are approaching their physical peaks, and payroll issues are looming in the next few years. So it's critical that the Jazz get as much experience as they can -- right now. And the next step for this team is the playoffs.

In 2012, the Jazz got waxed by the Spurs in the first round, and it didn't mean anything. This year, the Jazz could get waxed by the Warriors in the first round, and it would make all the difference in the world. Even in their matchups earlier this season, the Jazz have played well against Golden State. I think that's because the team consciously raised its level of effort and desire. I think that would happen again in a playoff series. I wouldn't expect the Jazz to win. But I'd love to watch them try. I'd love to watch them LEARN.

So yeah, every one of the next 20 games is important to me. Because I don't think we'll ever find out what this Jazz roster is really capable of unless they take the next step.

So we have a goal. But achieving it won't be easy, unless the Jazz improve quickly. Yahoo's Dan Devine, in his weekly Most Interesting Power Rankings, makes that clear:

Generally speaking, I'm into Utah. I love Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors up front alongside Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood on the wing. I enjoy the no-B.S. Trevor Booker, the rec-league craftiness of Joe Ingles, the skills bursting from the seams of rookie Trey Lyles, and so on. But responding to Gasol's injury and the Rockets' struggles by losing seven of 10 — albeit against tough competition — marks a disappointing missed opportunity. Utah's got one of the softer closing schedules in the West, but still has to face Cleveland, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, the Clippers and Golden State twice. If the postseason remains the goal, the bottom-five offense and middling defense Utah's turned in since mid-February won't cut it.

I'm not really one for schedule-watching. As far as I'm concerned, the Jazz still control their own destiny. It won't be as easy as it could have been, since the Jazz have already blown tiebreakers with Houston and Portland. But the last few playoff seeds in the West are so close together that it's still basically in the Jazz's own hands.

FanPosts! Glorious FanPosts! Here's a trio for you today (gotta save a few for later):

BTork makes an observation that might explain the Jazz's poor late-game performance:

It occurred to me that the Jazz change their 4th quarter offensive scheme from a team to an individual scheme. They get away from passing and assisting to one of isolation in the 4th quarter. Hoping Hayward or Hood can carry the team through the 4th quarter. There is too much standing around watching Hayward and Hood trying to create a shot on their own.

I also notice that everyone is afraid to take a shot in the 4th quarter as well. There always lots of passing going on but no shooting. Seems like no one wants to face Coach Q if they miss a shot going down the stretch.

nkeith wrote a few thoughts while frustrated by the team's recent losing streak:

I understand Utah wants to make it to the playoffs this season, if only to at least get some playoff experience before coming back full throttle (hopefully?) next season when a healthy Dante Exum and Alec Burks return.

But what if it turns out Exum is not the point guard we've been looking for? I think he has a lo of qualities that can help Utah in the backcourt, but if a healthy and starting Exum doesn't make much difference to Utah's success, what does Utah try to do then at the PG position? Just wait and cross that bridge if and when we get there? I think that is the plan.

Meanwhile, jazzyman is more upbeat about Utah's development:

I think it is very palpable the benefits the team gets from Rudy and Favors, and we can see the bench developing before our eyes. There are some question marks going forward, but the front office, coaching staff, and players have put us in a very good place. With everyone working so hard, I believe we are very well on track to having a very competitive team. So while we may lose a few more games this year, look at the positives that are happening. Our team is developing incredible play habits, we are beginning to win more with the players that we have. Of course, there is more development, more free agent overturn, and at least one or two more seasons before we really emerge, but the seed we planted in 2011 has sprouted from the earth, and is steadily growing.

Thanks for the posts, folks! You're the best.

We know Trevor Booker loves his cereal. On Monday he proved just how much:

Tuesday night's game will be the last one for a man who's probably attended more Jazz games than anyone reading this: Deseret News photographer Tom Smart is retiring after 45 years of quiet excellence. Via his D-News colleague Lee Benson:

[Smart] worked off and on for the D-News for the next 10 years, while getting his degree from the University of Utah (in political science) and also shooting for the Associated Press. The AP liked his work so much they dispatched him to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the 1980 Games in Moscow and Lake Placid.

Back from Moscow in 1980, deciding it was time to get serious about a career, he asked a history professor he admired at the U., Jim Clayton, for a recommendation to law school. Clayton's response: "What in the world do you want to be a lawyer for? You have the best job in the world."

When numerous friends also looked at him like he was daft, "I kind of had this epiphany," says Tom.

He was hired full-time by the Deseret News in 1981. In 1984, just after he turned 30, the paper promoted him to chief photographer. He managed the department for the next 18 years until he had another epiphany — "I realized a bad assignment was better than a good meeting" — and demoted himself.

Full disclosure: I worked at the D-News for five years, and in that time my path didn't cross Tom's very often. But that anecdote shows the kind of humble person he is -- and it hints at the kind of players I want on the Utah Jazz.

I wrote recently about how Gregg Popovich looks for players who have "gotten over themselves." Tom is that kind of person. He was in the room when another one of those men -- Jerry Sloan -- retired. He spent much of his career documenting the exploits of a Jazz team that believed in that principle. He was and is a perfect fit for this state, and a great journalist, too.

The DN posted a gallery of some of Tom's best work. You'll recognize more than a few Jazz players in it, so take a look.