Jan. 8 was supposed to be a day the Utah Jazz could exhale.
Exactly at the halfway point of the regular season after falling to the Milwaukee Bucks on the road Monday night, it’s no secret the Jazz’s schedule has been brutal through the first 41 games, as they’ve played just 16 contests at home, with a number of them sandwiched in between two road ones.
But beginning Wednesday night against the Orlando Magic at Vivint Arena, the schedule will begin to lighten up considerably for Utah, which sat in 10th place in the crazy Western Conference entering Tuesday night, two games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Eight of the Jazz’s next nine games will be at home, and a majority of their remaining opponents have records under .500. A number of metrics say Utah has the easiest remaining schedule in the entire NBA after having the most difficult slate up to this point
Except now Utah faces another big hurdle, as the injury bug has hit the team hard. In addition to the right ankle sprain Grayson Allen has been dealing with, Dante Exum and Thabo Sefolosha were hurt last Saturday against the Detroit Pistons, and Ricky Rubio went down early against the Bucks. Then on Tuesday, Tony Bradley underwent a surgery on his right knee.
What had been a pretty clean injury report for a team that has been plagued by injury-related absences each season since Quin Snyder took over as head coach is now quite full.
The Jazz released an update Tuesday indicating that both Rubio and Sefolosha have mild right hamstring strains and will be reevaluated in a week, while Bradley will be reevaluated in a month. No official update on Exum was given, but The Athletic reported that he's expected to be out a couple of weeks with a left ankle sprain.
The biggest issue with all the injuries is that the Jazz are minus their top two point guards, as Raul Neto is the only floor general who is healthy (ironically, he’s the only Utah player who has missed considerable time because of injury so far this season).
The Brazilian performed admirably on Monday night in scoring 10 points with six rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes of play, but how much can he be relied upon to produce over the long haul?
The good news for the Jazz is that while Neto might be the only healthy traditional point guard on the roster, there are a number of players who are capable of running the offense for stretches. Most notably, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles can do it, although in Mitchell’s case, those duties combined with the need Utah has for him to create his own shots put even more on his shoulders than was already there.
On Monday night, Mitchell had an excellent start but appeared to fatigue down the stretch (he denied it) and finished with 26 points and seven turnovers to just one assist in 40 minutes of play.
“I try my best to keep the same mindset,” Mitchell said Monday of playing more minutes at point guard. “When you start to overthink, that leads to seven turnovers. Just being able to go out and just making reads is what helped me out, and it’s what got me to where I am.”
Last season during the playoffs as both Rubio and Exum were sidelined with injury, Snyder started Mitchell at point guard and Royce O’Neale at shooting guard.
In Ingles’ case, he is often the one who initiates pick-and-rolls anyway, but increasing his ball-handling duties would be one more task for a player who has struggled offensively in large measure this season and who has big responsibilities defending top-notch wings.3 comments on this story
“We believe in Raul Neto, and Donovan has played some point guard before and so has Joe,” Snyder said after Monday night’s game. “We’ll figure it out. Rather than focus on that as much, I think our team has to pull together even more, which we consistently do.”
Wednesday’s contest will be the first of a four-game homestand for the Jazz. They’ll play LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, the Chicago Bulls on Saturday and the Pistons next Monday. They’ll then play the L.A. Clippers on the road before returning to Salt Lake City for another four-game homestand.