There’s no question Tuesday’s home loss to the 21-53 Atlanta Hawks hurt the Utah Jazz in the NBA standings during this frantic sprint of a playoff race. It was part of a 2-2 week that, paired with Friday’s loss in San Antonio, saw Utah falling from the 5 seed in the West to the 8 seed. They’ve climbed back into the 7 seed thanks to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ perhaps even more inexplicable home loss to the 20-54 Memphis Grizzlies Monday night. If the Jazz had won that Atlanta game, they would instead be maintaining position in the 5 seed and only .5 game back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for home court in the first round of the playoffs.
How much did that loss hurt the Jazz in the hierarchy of the league, though? Well, it depends on who you ask. Utah fell 3 or 4 spots in each of ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Rotoworld’s rankings to land back at No. 10. Inexplicably, they actually rose 2 spots to a top-3 spot in the CBS Sports rankings, a new season high. They also rose in each of the objective analytical models we’ve been tracking, but that would be explained by Sunday’s win at Golden State, because those models don’t take into account the Warriors’ injuries in that game.
Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year? It might be tough with Simmons in the picture, but Mitchell has been a scoring machine. He recorded his fourth 35-point game of the season on Friday, tied for second-most by any rookie in the past 20 seasons. Only Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04 had more with six such games (Anthony lost out on Rookie of the Year that season to James). -- Matt Williams
Jazz fans are probably wondering what could have been lately. Their run started with the emergence of Donovan Mitchell, but if Rudy Gobert had never gotten injured, this team would arguably have an even higher seed in the ultra-competitive West.
A baffling loss to the Hawks last week aside, the Jazz are still one of the hottest teams in the league. That slip-up against Atlanta could be big, though, as Denver is only one game back in the loss column. But the Jazz remain high in my power rankings because Donovan Mitchell is so damn entertaining to watch. His play down the stretch of last Friday’s loss to the Spurs was not normal for a rookie.
The Jazz are prone to the occasional clunker on offense, like when they shot just 37 percent (6-for-34 from 3-point range) in an out-of-nowhere loss to Atlanta on Tuesday. More concerning is a pair of bad defensive games against a pair of below-average offenses on Thursday and Friday, with the Mavs and Spurs registering an effective field goal percentage of 63 percent from outside the paint. The Jazz have been one of the best teams in the league in keeping their opponents’ 3-point attempts down, but teams have shot 48 percent from mid-range and 37 percent from 3-point range in their six losses since Rudy Gobert’s return in mid-January (compared to 38 percent and 33 percent in their 24 wins over that stretch). Potential first-round opponents Golden State, Houston and Portland rank first, second and sixth in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint, respectively.
A crucial aspect of the Jazz turning around their year has been their incredible success away from home over the last two months. Utah won just five of their first 24 road games this season. Since then, the Jazz has won 13 of their last 14 road games. They and are now 18-20 in away games.
I tried not to ding the Jazz too badly based on the Hawks game. Every team in the league has the occasional clunker, as we’ve seen elsewhere in the West playoff race the last couple of weeks. What’s more concerning to me is what’s happening beyond the arc on the defensive side of the floor recently. Starting with the Suns game on March 15, here’s the last 6 games of opponent 3 point shooting: 44% by the Suns, 67% by Sacramento, 27% by Atlanta (funny that’s the game we lost), 53% by Dallas, 41% by San Antonio and 40% by Golden State. That’s contributed to Utah’s defensive rating coming back to earth in that stretch at 102.7. Most evidence suggests that opponent 3 point shooting over such short stretches is completely random, but it’s something to think about.