The All-Star break has come to an end for the Utah Jazz as a game against the San Antonio Spurs tips off tonight. The Utah Jazz entered the All-Star break with a 36-18 record. While the win-loss record against above .500 teams is lacking, having twice as many wins as losses at that point in the season is no small feat. It’s not an easy task to consistently take care of business against below .500 teams, especially this year when so many of them are still in the playoff hunt. So what can we look forward to as the season picks up again for the final march to the playoffs in April? Here’s what I’m looking for over the last 28 games of this season.
The Race For the 2 Seed in the West
Let’s not bury the most important part of this segment of the season. The Utah Jazz are only 1.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the second seed in the West and 5.5 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the #1 seed in the West. The other teams fighting for that 2 seed are the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets. The 2 seed could literally go to the team who holds the tiebreaker over the other two teams. Currently, the Jazz are 2-1 vs the Clippers and 1-1 vs the Rockets. Utah’s underwhelming performance against Houston at home has made the next game against them a must win. The Jazz will have one more game to clinch the tiebreaker in April over the Clippers.
That brings us to Denver, Denver has won 2 out of 2 games against the Jazz this year and the Utah Jazz will play them twice in the final 6 games of the season (Thanks, Schedule Makers). That final 5 game stretch is brutal. It includes Denver twice, the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Suns, and Thunder. What could go wrong?
Making things harder is Utah’s schedule in comparison to the Rockets and Clippers. Both have easier schedules to close out. Luckily the Nuggets have the 10th hardest schedule to wrap up the season.
To put this bluntly, if Utah ends up with the 2 seed, they will have earned it. Not only that, it will be very easy to put them in the top tier of Championship Contenders in the playoffs. They will have had to run a gauntlet of a schedule, fight off three other teams for the second, have successfully integrated Mike Conley into their starting lineup while winning, and they will bring a good amount of playoff experience with them. They will have the experience of upsets against the Clippers and Thunder and the demoralizing series losses against the Rockets fresh in their minds. The home court advantage of the 2 seed is nice, but that isn’t what would make them a contender in my mind. It would be the road they had to take to earn it.
For those thinking about the Lakers at the very top of the West... the #1 seed in the West is 99% out of reach barring a major collapse from the men in purple and gold. The Lakers have the league’s 21st easiest schedule the rest of the way. There is an opportunity, though, to make it a bit interesting for the Jazz and at least give the Lakers something to fear in a potential playoff matchup. The Jazz play the Lakers twice in this final post All-Star stretch. If Utah beats them, they gain two games in the standings. Another thing to watch with the Lakers is if they rest LeBron James and Anthony Davis a bit more to have them healthy for the playoffs. If they do... that could open the door to some unexpected losses and allow the next tier of teams—Utah, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver, and Houston—to make things REALLY interesting. 5 way tie, anyone? (Actually, no. Please no. I don’t want to write that hypothetical post. Ever. No.)
Mike Conley’s performance and fit in Utah’s offense over this stretch
The Utah Jazz know how to play really well without Mike Conley. They know their levers, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They know their roles with Mike Conley off the court. With Mike Conley on the court, it’s not always clear. Right before the All-Star break, we did start to see the Conley of yesteryear: 20+ ppg, 6+ apg, 6+ rpg. That looks like Mike Conley. It did however seem to have an effect on the production of Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles. Their production nosedived. Was it fit? Was it the aggregate unreported nagging injuries of a normal NBA season just adding up right before the break? Was it All-Star eagerness?
We don’t know. We do know that those effects reversed in the games Mike Conley didn’t play while out or resting in the week and a half before the All-Star break.
But here’s the problem the Utah Jazz must solve:
A) The Utah Jazz roster plays better as a whole this season when Mike Conley has been off the court.
B) The Utah Jazz can only reach their full potential if Mike Conley reaches his full potential as a player and Utah learns to play around him.
C) Solve for Mike Conley.
Both the statements are true. Utah sum of their parts has been better with Mike Conley off the court than on. However, if Conley is off the court, Utah has peaked. That’s the best that team can be: a team that wails on weak opponents and struggles against strong ones. There were glimpses before the All-Star break of Mike Conley FITTING in well with the lineups he played in. This isn’t just Conley’s responsibility, it’s the rest of the roster and coach’s responsibility. Players have to learn to defer to Conley in certain moments. Just because they can take over a game at a certain point, doesn’t mean they should. This goes from Bojan Bogdanovic to Joe Ingles to Donovan Mitchell. For Utah to go Super Saiyan, the must remember their mantra of yesteryear: The Strength of the team is the team.
The Salt Lake City Stars may have a reinforcement ready for Utah’s bench
Jarrell Brantley has been a beast in the G-League. Not just a beast, but one of the best players in the G-League. Ridiculous Upside, the SB Nation Blog that covers the G-League, has been leading the charge of the Brantosaurus Express. He’s just been on another level in that league that sometimes it’s just not even fair for opposing teams.
Jarrell is one of the players that continues to impress more and more every time I watch him. https://t.co/v9tluIovz4— Ridiculous Upside (@RidicUpside) February 20, 2020
He’s got Andy Larsen’s attention.
Went to Stars game tonight. Some thoughts:— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) February 20, 2020
Jarrell Brantley is so talented. Just some incredible passes and finishes tonight. Terrific defender. But I get why he’s not playing NBA minutes yet... iffy screen setter, can make weird choices with the ball, not a 100% play executor.
And he’s had mine for a while. From the first time I saw him in Summer League, I’ve been impressed. He’s just so talented. The refinement of skills will come with time, but he’s a bench player today in the NBA. The reason he may actually still be in the G-League right now is Utah may seem him as much more than a bench player in the NBA. Soon the G-League season will come to an end. He’ll be back with the Utah Jazz. Utah will have to make a decision at some point as to who they want to keep on their roster, but there will be no doubt that Brantley will be on it.
In the G-League, playing as the Stars’ center, he’s averaging 19.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.4 steals in 33 minutes a game. He’s shooting 33% from three over the season, but that percentage has climbed up every month as he’s improved. He could be a late addition to games in the final stretch (not in the playoffs, though). He will be a big part of the Utah Jazz’s rotation next season. Start watching him in the G-League now, so you can say you remember when he was just starting out as a two-way player. He’s probably the most athletically gifted and talented player Utah has put through their G-League process. He has the potential to be Utah’s best development case study ever surpassing Joe Ingles.