SALT LAKE CITY — Ever since the day the NBA announced its schedule for the 2018-2019 season, pundits and fans have pointed to mid-March as the time when the Utah Jazz could and should feast on the seeming simplicity of their remaining slate.
After an incredibly challenging first 41 games, things began to lighten up for the Jazz in January, but there’s still been a good number of tough opponents on the schedule since then. But after Utah’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at home on Monday night, the Jazz have just two games remaining over their final 16 in the regular season against teams that entered Tuesday with better records than them (the final two games against the Denver Nuggets and L.A. Clippers).
While it’s incredibly challenging to reel off a long win streak no matter the opponents, the next 14 games for Utah appear to be very winnable, as not only do all the teams have a worse record than the Jazz, but just one, the Brooklyn Nets, is above .500.
For starters, four are against two of the three teams in the league that have already been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention (three against the Phoenix Suns, including the Jazz’s next game Wednesday night, and one against the New York Knicks).
Additionally, the other nine are against either squads that are primed to be mathematically eliminated soon (Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and two against the Los Angeles Lakers) or Eastern Conference teams that are still in contention because the bottom of the playoff picture there is so poor (Charlotte Hornets and two against the Washington Wizards).
Such a schedule couldn’t come at a better time for Utah. After the Jazz came back to defeat the mighty Milwaukee Bucks at home on March 2, they were sixth in the West, with a two-game cushion on the L.A. Clippers and San Antonio Spurs for seventh and just 2.5 out of sole possession of third with the easing of the schedule on the horizon.
But after losing three of its last four games, including to the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, Utah entered Tuesday night in eighth. To be sure, even with the struggles, the Jazz aren’t in danger of missing the playoffs altogether barring an incredible collapse, as they’ve got a commanding four-game lead on the ninth-place Kings and are just 1.5 games back of sole possession of sixth.
Obtaining a top-four seed and homecourt advantage in the first round might be an uphill battle at this point, however, even with what numerous mathematical models consider the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, as Utah entered Tuesday 3.5 games back of the fourth-place Thunder.
The remainder of the regular season, then, comes down to combining the ideas of staying in the moment while recognizing there’s a certain sense of urgency given how few games remain.
“I think we need to take it one game at a time, but also make sure we win those games,” said backup guard Dante Exum, who returned Monday night after missing 25 games because of injury. “We’re at a point now in the season where we need to be winning games. We have an expectation that we should be winning these games, no matter who the opponent is. I think we’re a really good team, and we just need to continue to get better, and once it clicks, it clicks.”3 comments on this story
Kyle Korver said that everyone telling players the schedule is easy from here on out is “junk that you’ve got to block out,” and that it’s hard to win in the NBA, but noted, “I think we’ve just got to find our juice, we’ve got to play with a little more pace, and if we do that, we’re going to be fine, but we’ve got find a little more energy.”
On Wednesday, the Jazz will face a Phoenix team on the road that is a West-worst 16-52, but that has won five of its last seven games, including a 115-111 victory Sunday over the Golden State Warriors.