The Utah Jazz (34-20) failed to close out the Mavericks on Thursday and ended up with a slightly embarrassing 112-105 overtime loss. Utah will want to bounce back from that, but they are going to face the team with the second-best record in the East in the Boston Celtics (34-19).
Though Boston’s record is good for second in the East, it’d only be good for fourth in the West. They would be just half a game ahead of Utah were they in the same conference.
Before things turn too much into a regular preview article, here’s the five things to keep your eyes peeled for (or not since this is a regular season game in February).
This guy is for realsies. And it’s crazy that he’s so good for being so small. I saw a 5’5” kid at a high school basketball game this week, noted how puny he was, and then realized that Thomas is only four inches taller (I also thought of Spud Webb, because, you know, Spud Webb).
Last time out against Utah, Thomas lit them up for 29 points and 15 assists.
Thomas is a dynamo out on the court who is nigh upon impossible to stop. In 49 games this season he is averaging 29.9 points on 46.6 percent from the field (37.9 from three). He has had just one game this season where he has scored fewer than 20 points (18 against Golden State in 28 minutes). Just four times in the last 13 games has Thomas scored fewer than 34.
The only consolation for the Jazz is that in the last three games, Thomas is shooting just 40 percent from the floor. But he went to the free throw line 33 times in those three games (and made 31 of them).
How will George Hill and Alec Burks impact the game?
Utah didn’t have George Hill or Alec Burks last time. Burks was still his injured self and Hill was still trying to recover from Alex Len’s elbow to the face. Consequently, Shelvin Mack played 26 minutes and had to guard Isaiah Thomas all night.
Burks is healthy (knock on wood) and it appears that George Hill will play against the Celtics after sitting out the Mavericks game.
In the last 10 games, Hill and Burks are recording a combined 28.0 points per game. They make the Jazz deeper, more efficient and they keep Shelvin Mack on the bench. They could tip the scales in favor of the good guys.
Can the Jazz keep pace with Boston?
Last time these two teams met, Boston came away with a 115-104 victory on their home court. It is one of only five losses the Jazz have this season when they score 100 points or more (31 times).
The Celtics are the seventh highest scoring team in the league, putting up 108.2 points per game. The Jazz don’t do that. At least not until lately.
Utah has eclipsed the 100 point mark in each of their last five games, including back-to-back 120+ point games. This has pushed the Jazz’s season average above the 100 PPG mark for the first time since October.
The sometimes painfully slow pace for the Jazz might frustrate the Celtics. Or Boston will laugh at it while they drill transition shots all game. If the Jazz fail to either force the Celtics to play Utah’s game or beat the Celtics at their game, it’ll be a long night.
The first-time All Star has been on a tear recently with three 30 point games in February. His 36 point effort against Dallas was just one point shy of his career high of 37, which came against the Thunder in 2014. His lowest scoring game this month (17 against the Pelicans) was partly due to him playing only 26 minutes.
Hayward is not only putting up points, he’s doing so with ruthless efficiency. In February, he is shooting 56.4/41.4/83.3. That isn’t fair for opposing defenses. Just look at this shot and tell me the defense wasn’t crying inside afterward.
Hayward has also increased his volume of shooting. After shooting 13.7 shots per game in January, Hayward is putting up 18.8 this month. Gordon is trying to put the Jazz on his back and take it to the promised land.
Celtics defensive strategy
In their last meeting, Boston made a point to ensure that Rudy Gobert has no impact whatsoever offensively. And he didn’t. Gobert went 3-8 with just two free throw attempts.
Gobert is becoming a better two-way player each month. He isn’t a volume scorer (on most nights), but if your defensive powerhouse contributes 14 points on five shots it feels like 25.
It remains to be seem if the Celtics decide to focus on Gobert the way they did or if they’ll give special interest to the hot-handed Hayward.