SALT LAKE CITY — It’s no secret the Jazz have been picking the low fruit since the All-Star break. Monday’s win over Charlotte featured another in a string of opponents straight outta We-Don’t-Careville.
With only five games left in the regular season, the true suspense lies where it always does at this time of year, i.e. who the Jazz will meet in the postseason. It’s likely to be Portland — a team on edge since its starting center went down for the count — or last year’s playoff nemesis, Houston. Having won 10 of their last 11 games, the Jazz are the hottest team in the NBA.
“You’ve just got to keep going,” Donovan Mitchell said Monday night. “You can’t look at it as a streak.”
Even if you do, it’s good to remember it’s all about the company you keep. Right now all the schedule says about the Jazz is they know an opportunity when they see it. Everything else is a mystery wrapped in an enigma bound by a conundrum. They can keep beating non-playoff teams till the sun burns out, but it won’t matter a lot when they play teams that are their equal.
When it comes to crushing the helpless, the Jazz are an A-plus. But in terms of beating the top teams, they’re closer to average. They are sixth in winning percentage against playoff-bound Western Conference teams.
Meanwhile, the team with the best record in that department is (drum roll, please) ... Oklahoma City. The Thunder had lost seven of nine games going into Tuesday’s contest with the Lakers, having fallen from fourth in the standings to a tie for seventh. At the same time, OKC has gone 15-10 (.600) against Western playoff teams this season. By that same comparison, San Antonio (14-10, .583) has the second-best win percentage.
It’s probable the last two teams to make the playoffs will finish with the best records against quality teams.
Don’t sleep on the lower end of the playoff bracket.
Oklahoma City hasn’t demolished every conference opponent. It went winless in four tries against Denver. But it swept both Portland and Utah, accounting for eight of its 15 wins. San Antonio has gone 3-1 against Houston but has not won more than two games against anyone else on the list. Following Monday’s games, Golden State, Denver and Houston were tied for third-best against conference elites at 12-11 (.522), followed by the Jazz at 11-12 (.479), Portland at 11-14 (.440) and the Clippers at 9-14 (.391).
The remaining schedule has good news and more good news for the Jazz. On one hand, they have two playoff-bound opponents remaining (Denver, L.A. Clippers), which should help prepare them for the postseason, while Phoenix, the Lakers and Sacramento ought to be wins.
But it’s possible the Jazz have become jaded to winning, after facing so many mediocre or poor teams. Coach Quin Snyder halfway admitted after Saturday’s near-loss to Washington that his team could have become complacent. But he hastened to add it was attentive enough to lead by 15 before winning by four.Comment on this story
Paramount for the players is upping their game to match playoff competition. For now, they’re all doing what Mitchell did by ignoring the race for position. Asked if he pays attention to these things, Rudy Gobert said at Monday’s shootaround, “Not really. Just ... keep getting better. Maybe if you have, like, two games left, then you can start looking at the schedule or rankings. But right now it doesn’t really matter. There’s a few games left.”
None will prove much except the final two outings, against Denver and the Clippers. Everything else should be a formality. It’s one thing to be the schoolyard bully, but a different thing when the principal calls you in.
“I think as a team,” Joe Ingles said, “we’re in a good spot.”
As a playoff team, it’s still too close to call.