After losing Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Boston Celtics in 2017, the Utah Jazz entered the 2017-2018 NBA season as unlikely bets to make the playoffs. But, after acquiring Donovan Mitchell in the draft via a trade with the Denver Nuggets, the Jazz have developed into the type of team that scares the hell out of other teams who fully expect to play in the Western Conference Finals. Right now, Utah is playing on borrowed time with nothing to lose, and from the looks of things they’re going to make the most of the opportunity while they have it.
I predicted that the Jazz would make it past the first round with little trouble, and I wasn’t alone in my theory. Many expected the Oklahoma City Thunder to implode in the post-season, even with such a star-studded lineup. Facing the Houston Rockets in the second round is a contest I’m a little more skeptical about, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that Utah can be competitive. Last night, Utah made a comeback against the Rockets after giving up a huge lead early on. With about 8 minutes to play in the 4th, the Jazz went on a 16-2 run to ultimately win the game by 8 points.
What’s impressive about this particular win is that, unlike most other teams, the Jazz never let themselves come completely unwound as a unit. Houston’s barrage of firepower is a death-by-paper-cuts approach to winning that breaks their opponents’ spirit causing them to basically give up under pressure. The Jazz were able to remain focused, and led by Mitchell’s timely put-back dunk, they were able to regain the momentum they needed to win.
Making a strong argument for Rookie of the Year, Mitchell is averaging 20.5 points, 3.7 assists, and 3.7 rebounds per game for the season, and with Ricky Rubio out with an injury against Houston, Mitchell showed that he’s able to step up to the plate and lead his team when they’re facing certain defeat. Joe Ingles followed suit bringing in a career-high 27 points at 10 of 13 from the field, and 7 of 9 from distance in last night’s win against Houston proving that refusing to give up can pay dividends against one of the best teams in the league.
Houston Rockets’ Coach Mike D’Antoni credited Utah’s win to Mitchell although he was not the leading scorer of the game. ”He was breaking us down,” D’Antoni stated. ”He was getting in there and was finding guys in the corner. He’s a handful whether he’s finishing or not.”
Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder was very happy with his team’s effort. Of Ingles he said, ”Every time Joe has needed to step up his game, he has been able to. He’s committed to that. He knew tonight he would need to make some shots and he was able to do it.”
Now, that wouldn’t seem particularly special–especially when it’s just one game. However, Utah’s performance in the 2017-2018 season coupled with how they’ve fared thus far in the playoffs is speaking volumes about the presence they will be not just this season, but for many years to come. Right now they’re playing as if they have no idea that they’re supposed to be rebuilding, and the new recruits on the team have no regard for the typical way a team progresses after they lose their main star.
Many have been calling the Jazz the Cinderella team for a couple of months now as they steadily held their playoff position in the highly competitive Western Conference for practically the entire season. They can ride the success train as long as they want this year, but they’ve already far surpassed everyone’s expectations meaning every move forward from here through the end of their season is icing on the cake.
Now, we have to be realistic and understand that Utah won’t make it to the NBA Finals this year, but it’s certain that next season they’ll be on everyone’s radar as a prominent presence in the Western Conference. They hold the 21st pick in the 2018 draft, but if they can pull off a heist like they did last season with the Denver Nuggets they might just be able to land another highly ranked pick to add to their well-balanced roster.
For now, if they keep playing tough against Houston they may just be the awkward match-up for the Rockets that sends them home. James Harden was questioned after last night’s loss, accused of looking frustrated with the defensive pressure that was being applied to him by the Jazz. I’ve often thought that Harden doesn’t respond well to defensive pressure, but he disagreed stating, “I look like that all the time. That’s just my facial expression.”
Houston and Utah are tied 1-1 in the series with the home court advantage going to the Jazz for the next two match-ups. If they’re able to continue to play loose and focused, they may just be able to continue to prolong their Cinderella season. Personally, I’d love to see them win and break up the playoff monotony in the West.