SALT LAKE CITY — OK, Utah, go ahead.
Your basketball team is headed for the playoffs, there’s little doubt about that. Saturday the Jazz clipped the best team in the Eastern Conference, 115-111, by lasting longer than it takes to say Giannis Antetokounmpo. They trailed Milwaukee by 17 with 9:39 left to play, after leading by 13 with 3:44 left in the half.
Milwaukee’s “Greek Freak” was his usual self, or better: 43 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists. Donovan Mitchell answered with 46 points and six assists.
But the difference was Derrick Favors. His was the real freak show: 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting, three blocked shots and 18 rebounds. He made up for a rare off night by Rudy Gobert, who spent the game staggering backward as Antetokounmpo rushed the rim. Usually Gobert rejects his share of shots. This time, most of the blocking was done in one crazy flurry by Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, who stuffed six shots in the first quarter — three in a 30-second span.
That only seemed to rile up the Jazz, who went from a 13-2 deficit to a 13-point lead.
Although the Jazz aren’t a postseason guarantee, they would have to try to miss. Of their 20 remaining games, just four involve teams currently in playoff contention: Oklahoma City, Brooklyn, Denver and the Clippers. Only Denver and Oklahoma City have better records.
After the game, Jazz fans celebrated like it was a holiday. It was a fine night for showing off the NBA. So much for the argument nobody cares until the playoffs. The Bucks were still trying to pull off the win by fouling for profit down the stretch.
Up and down the American coasts, the Jazz-Milwaukee game isn’t likely a big draw. What do they care in Manhattan and Manhattan Beach about flyover country?
But the heart was all in the Heartland on Saturday, two small-market teams showing ’em how it’s done in the real world. There were few if any film stars on hand, but a lot of basketball stars.
Elsewhere, the nation’s two biggest markets, New York and L.A., have teams languishing outside playoff range. Looks like the rumors are true: There is no big-market conspiracy. The Knicks haven’t won a title since Tony Orlando was big.
Utah is a ways from first place, but clearly as dangerous as thin ice. The Jazz are 7-9 against teams ahead of them in the Western Conference, yet have shown they can beat any of them. They are 1-2 against Golden State, but all three games were close, and one loss was by a single point. Meanwhile, they are 2-1 against the Nuggets and Portland — including wins of 30 and 21 over the Blazers — and 2-2 against Houston.
The only conference team they haven’t defeated is Oklahoma City (0-3). But one loss was by a point and one was in double-overtime.
Although conditions are different, the trend is the same as last year for the Jazz. Meet them in the first half of the season, they’re fairly docile. But catching them after January is risky. Last year Utah went 28-5 down the stretch, rolling into the playoffs as maybe the league’s hottest team. On March 2 last year, they were 32-30. This season they’re 36-26.5 comments on this story
“We are not last year’s team,” coach Quin Snyder said. “Let’s be clear about that. This is a new group, but whatever their identity is, it’s ours to determine — nothing external.”
The Jazz actually caught themselves by surprise, last year, though they’d never admit it. But this year it’s been scripted: good early opponents, a preponderance of road games, and the easiest schedule in the league later in the season.
Meanwhile, the Bucks and Jazz are shining examples of what “undesirable” markets can do. So naturally the basketball was superb.
“It was a great fight,” said Lopez.
In New York and L.A. they’re already thinking baseball.