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Does playing great in March translate to success in the NBA Playoffs?

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Is it a good sign that Utah is playing great in March ... again?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

“They’re peaking at just the right time” is a common phrase used around any sports league when referring to a team playing their best ball before the playoffs. Last year, the Utah Jazz entered the playoffs on an absolute tear. They steamrolled their way from 10th all the way to 5th in a two and a half month span. They would go on to upset the Oklahoma City Thunder despite the Thunder winning the season series and would even steal a game from the Houston Rockets in Game 2 on the road. It would seem that fits the narrative.

Hot team enters the playoffs.

Hot team does damage because they’re playing best ball.

Streak = good.

But on the other hand there’s another team in the Western Conference that entered the playoffs last year floundering toward the finish, lacked an identity, and then—to the surprise of everyone—swept the Portland Trail Blazers out of the playoffs while playing as the 6th seed. I’m referring to the New Orleans Pelicans. They actually had a net rating in March of -0.2. They weren’t exactly surging.

So what does this all mean? Let’s take a look at last year’s playoff teams and their March records vs their playoff success.

2017-2018 March Net Rating

2017-2018 Top Ten Offensive Defensive Net Playoff Finish Playoff Record Strength of Schedule
2017-2018 Top Ten Offensive Defensive Net Playoff Finish Playoff Record Strength of Schedule
Utah Jazz 109.3 97.5 11.8 2nd Round 5-6 0.443
Houston Rockets 115 103.6 11.4 WC Finals 11-6 0.5112
Philadelphia 76ers 111.7 102.2 9.5 2nd Round 5-5 0.434875
Portland Trail Blazers 113.1 104.7 8.3 1st Round 0-4 0.5552
Toronto Raptors 114.8 110.3 4.5 2nd Round 4-6 0.48075
Miami Heat 111.1 106.7 4.4 First Round 1-4 0.47085
Oklahoma City Thunder 111.8 107.9 3.9 First Round 2-4 0.5255
Boston Celtics 107.2 103.7 3.5 EC Finals 11-8 0.51907
San Antonio Spurs 106.1 102.9 3.1 1st Round 1-4 0.56357
Indiana Pacers 106.1 103.3 2.8 1st Round 3-4 0.54673
Cleveland Cavaliers 114.5 112.1 2.5 NBA Finals 12-7 0.4845
Milwaukee Bucks 113 111.9 1.2 First Round 3-4 0.50613
Golden State Warriors 106.8 107 -0.2 NBA Champions 16-5 0.446357
New Orleans Pelicans 106 106.2 -0.2 2nd Round 5-4 0.534
Washington Wizards 107.7 109.1 -1.4 First Round 2-4 0.55228
Minnesota Timberwolves 110.6 113 -2.5 First Round 1-4 0.52861
Stats via NBA.com

The Utah Jazz had the best Net Rating in March and that momentum carried. But interestingly enough—just like this season—they had the second easiest schedule to finish out the year. Blowing out tanking teams left and right can inflate a team’s resume. Similarly, the New Orleans Pelicans had an insanely difficult stretch to finish out the season, and struggled. But that final testing prepared them heavily for the Portland Trail Blazers, and it helped they had a match up advantage. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday are the perfect defensive tandem to slow down Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the perimeter.

Interestingly, Portland had one of the most difficult March schedules and found a lot of success toward it. One would think that would bring them success in the playoffs, but instead they floundered.

Other teams like the Warriors and Cavaliers—those with prior championship pedigrees—were just biding their time until April. They had nothing to prove by shifting into their top gears regardless of their schedule. The goal was to get healthy even if it cost them home court and a #1 seed.

Now it’s difficult to go back and find strength of schedule data for a month by month basis, but just by last year alone, it’s hard to see the “entering the playoffs with the right momentum” confirmation. Utah won their matchup against OKC, but they hadn’t played OKC since December. The squad the Thunder faced earlier in the season resembled nothing like the squad that they faced in April. Utah wouldn’t have that luxury this year. OKC has played Utah with Korver and without Korver, with Rubio and without Rubio, full strength and not full strength. They know Utah inside and out, and they’ve beaten them every time. It doesn’t matter what momentum Utah goes into the playoffs with, OKC is a terrible matchup for them right now.

As we get closer to the playoffs and it gets easier to rely on platitudes, let’s remember to look at these matchups with the entire season in perspective. If Utah were to face OKC, it would be dismissive to cite how OKC has been playing recently and say, “OKC is really struggling,” because Utah had that same hand dealt to them early in the season with a difficult schedule. It’s how Donovan got labeled a “chucker” and why when people talk about Utah know they don’t refer to them as being who they are but asking, “Are the Jazz for real?”

Does that mean winning games now doesn’t matter as much? Of course it does. There’s seeding to be had and angling for the best matchup. It’ll be interesting to see how the Western Conference plays the chess match of trying to line up with the team they feel they could have the most success with. Utah probably would love to get a date with Denver in April as they have had their number all season. Likewise, they’d love to avoid Portland who always seems to have the upper hand. Other Western Conference teams like the Thunder, Spurs, and Clippers will all be doing the same thing.

It’s going to be another wild finish when it comes to seeding. While it’s great to be dominating in March, it would be even better to have the right matchup in April.

Poll

Who would be the best matchup for the Utah Jazz in the 1st round?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    Denver Nuggets
    (135 votes)
  • 4%
    Golden State Warriors
    (10 votes)
  • 2%
    Houston Rockets
    (7 votes)
  • 29%
    Portland Trail Blazers
    (70 votes)
  • 6%
    Oklahoma City Thunder
    (15 votes)
237 votes total Vote Now