Matt Gade, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — With their win over Phoenix Wednesday night, their second after three straight losses, the Utah Jazz moved another step further away from one of the coveted top five lottery picks in the June NBA Draft. Their 21-36 record put them in a tie with the New York Knicks for the seventh worst record in the NBA.
Of course the Jazz players and coaches are looking at it much differently than the fan on the street, who wouldn’t mind getting a higher draft pick since the Jazz are out of the playoffs. The Jazz coaches and players, on the other hand, want to win every night and move as far away from the lottery as possible.
With a six-game, nine-day road trip beginning in Cleveland Friday night (5:30 p.m.), the Jazz would seem likely to fall back in the standings and move up in lottery-land. But for those wishing for that, take a close look at who the Jazz will be playing.
Although the Cavaliers have actually been pretty good lately, winning seven of their last 10 games, they are barely ahead of the Jazz at 23-36. On Sunday, the Jazz will have their hands full, playing at Indiana, which has the best record in the NBA at 43-13.
But Monday, the Jazz meet the NBA’s worst team, Milwaukee (11-45), followed on Wednesday by a so-so Washington team (29-28), before finishing the trip against the same-record Knicks and Philadelphia, which at 15-43, is making a run at Milwaukee’s worst record, having lost 11 straight games.
So three teams have records as poor or worse than the Jazz and one is just slightly better, meaning the Jazz have a chance to improve their record against the Eastern Conference teams, which they own a 10-10 record against this season.
Coach Tyrone Corbin is encouraged by the play of late and says the Jazz need to find better consistency.
“It’s a long trip for us,’’ he said. “We’ve got to understand what it’s going to take each and every game, especially on the road. We’ve got to be ready every night and we want to show some growth from earlier in the year. We need to look at how we can consistently get the same effort every night.’’
One big key to the Jazz has been the return of Derrick Favors, who sat out the first three games after the break with a hip sprain. Corbin and the Jazz players say the fourth-year pro out of Georgia Tech makes a big difference in the Jazz fortunes.
“We need to be full speed and we need all of our pieces,’’ Corbin said. “Having Derrick back at full speed, all the guys rally around each other and support each other. The rotations are better, and communication is better, and knowing Derrick is back there to make plays helps clean things up on the perimeter.’’
In his two games since returning to the lineup, Favors has scored 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting against Boston and 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting against Phoenix, while getting 11 rebounds and five blocked shots in the two games.
Just as important has been his defensive presence in the middle, which helped hold Boston to 44 percent shooting and Phoenix to 38.8 percent shooting.
“That’s what I do, that’s why I am on this team,’’ Favors said. “They brought me in to play defense, block shots, rebounds and when I get an opportunity, to go in and score.’’
The Jazz are also hoping Gordon Hayward has broken out of his shooting slump after he scored 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting Wednesday night after 13 straight sub-.500 shooting games.
In Cleveland, the Jazz will be playing a team that is playing much better than earlier in the season when it looked like it might be making a run at the NBA’s worst record.
On Wednesday night, despite missing key players, the Cavaliers upset the Western Conference’s best team, Oklahoma City, 114-104, behind the play of Kyrie Irving, who had 31 points, nine assists and four steals.
The Cavs were missing center Anderson Varejao (back), Dion Waiters (knee) and C.J. Miles (ankle), who are all questionable against the Jazz.
Cleveland has been helped by the addition of two players acquired since the start of the year. Luol Deng has started 23 games since coming over from Chicago and has averaged 14.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. Spencer Hawes has started two of the four games since a trade with Philadelphia just before the trade deadline and is averaging 14.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game.
Other likely starters for the Cavs are forward Tristan Thompson, who averages 12.2 points and 9.6 rebounds, and guard Jarrett Jack (8.7 ppg).
JAZZ NOTES: The six-game, nine-day road trip is the longest for the Jazz since 2003, when they had six games in nine days on their pre-Christmas Eastern road trip. The Jazz didn’t practice Thursday morning before taking off for Cleveland. In the previous game between the two teams in early January, the Cavaliers took a 113-102 win at EnergySolutions Arena. Anthony Bennett, who Cleveland made the No. 1 pick for in last summer’s NBA Draft, has been a bust so far, playing in just 47 games and averaging 4.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and shooting 33.7 percent.
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