OKLAHOMA CITY — Now that the playoffs are here, the next item on the Jazz’s to-do list is beating Oklahoma City in their best-of-seven series.
No pressure, of course.
This year’s playoffs mean absolutely nothing in the big picture to the Jazz.
Except that the playoffs actually are the big picture.
Teams play the regular season so they can appear in the postseason. Ask the Golden State Warriors how concerned they are about winning regular-season titles. They don’t give it a second thought.
Meanwhile, all that Jazz success down the stretch will mean half as much if they don’t win at least one series.
Under the circumstances, going 29-6 over the final three months was quite an accomplishment. But fewer than half those wins came against playoff-bound teams (12 of 29). Seven of their last nine games were against teams that were already locked into a playoff spot, or entirely out of the picture.
In short, how big a deal was the Jazz’s historic finish on the season?
They’ll let you know this week.
This is where the Jazz can prove they’re truly moving forward after losing Gordon Hayward and George Hill; whether they’re a team of the future or simply an overachieving bunch that caught lightning in a bottle. Strip away the emotion from the Jazz’s late-season run and the playoffs will make it easier to see if they’re actually just the flavor of the month.
“There’s a lot ways to look at it,” coach Quin Snyder said. “Some of that, you guys (media) are going to determine. I think there’s success in the season independent of success in the postseason.”
In some ways, the Jazz caught a break with their early-season adversity. They got their injuries out of the way quickly. Rudy Gobert’s absences were contained to the first three months. That left him with plenty of energy for the stretch run. Dante Exum returned in time to get in shape for the playoffs. Only Thabo Sefolosha’s knee surgery persisted through the second half of the season.
Utah missed 228 player-games this season, 12th most in the league. But ManGamesLost.com estimates the Jazz led the league in lost win shares, a measurement of how many games a team actually loses due to injuries (12.853). By that standard, instead of being 48-34, they might have been 61-21 — second best in franchise in history.
The Jazz took full advantage of their rejuvenated health, beating less fortunate teams such as Golden State, San Antonio and Minnesota.
A side story to this series is, naturally, motivation. The Jazz get their first real chance to prove Hayward’s departure didn’t disable them.
Both last year and this, Snyder succeeded in getting his team ready to play nearly every night (pretend you didn’t see Wednesday’s game vs. Portland). That’s not easy in a league of entitlement. Jerry Sloan’s teams were equally focused in the regular season. But in the playoffs, every team should be good to go. As much success as he had, Sloan’s all-time playoff record with the Jazz is 96-100.
“I would hate to think that, if somehow we didn’t win a series, I would look at the season and say it’s disappointing,” Snyder said. “In January, the expectation was we’d be in the lottery because that’s what we saw too. So making the playoffs in and of itself is an accomplishment, but clearly we want to accomplish more. I don’t think you get satisfied with one and I don’t think you define yourself by that, either.”
Regular-season championships are fine, but they’re no guarantee of what is to come. They can end up as valueless as junk mail.
It won’t be simple for the Jazz to continue their momentum. They won just one of the four games against the Thunder this year. OKC has three more All-Stars than the Jazz, and far more playoff experience. What it doesn’t have is a lot of kids who are thrilled just to be there.
Don’t tell the Jazz. What they don’t know about playoff ramifications won’t hurt them.