As we’ve trudged past the midway point of the NBA season, teams around the league have solidified their identities, as well as where they’ll stand come playoff time. The Utah Jazz have improved immensely since last year, but we’ve only seen their identity a handful of occasions. They have fought through their fair share of injuries, offensive inconsistencies, and defensive stumbles, but with the All-Star break right around the corner, the Jazz find themselves in must-win scenarios for the rest of the season. So, what’s made them so good this year and why do they find themselves in must-win situations for the remainder of the year? Let’s take a look at what they’ve overcome, including what they’ve been doing right, and where they need to improve moving forward.
The Jazz began this season without Gordon Hayward, who broke his finger during summer camp, and George Hill, who sprained his thumb at the start of the season in New York City. Hill has since been injured two different times — he sprained his big toe against Denver in Salt Lake City and then took an elbow from Alex Len eight games later against the Phoenix Suns, where he received 18 stitches and was placed on concussion protocol. Rodney Hood dealt with a hamstring issue for a couple of games, had the flu for a short stint and came back to play his way out of a shooting slump that lasted for far too long. After breaking out of his shooting slump, Hood suffered a hyperextension and bone contusion in his left knee in the closing seconds of a game the Jazz had already won against Orlando. Derrick Favors had played 11 games before he was benched because of a bone contusion in his knee, and despite his sporadic time on the court, he just hasn’t been the same player Jazz fans have become accustomed to. Favors' minutes, scoring, rebounding and defensive numbers have been all over the place.
Despite these injuries, the Jazz have fought through, holding onto fourth place in the western conference at 31-19. Impressively, they’ve come away with a lot of great wins this season. Most notable are their wins against San Antonio earlier in the year and later, Cleveland. They had great grudge match games against the Memphis Grizzlies but ultimately lost the season series (1-3). The two games against their division rival, Oklahoma City, saw the Jazz dismantle them in game one and go to the wire in game two, tying the season series at 1-1. Although the Lakers are the second-worst team in the Western Conference this year, the Jazz have had some trouble beating them (ultimately, the Jazz won this season series 3-0). When the Jazz played their first game against the Golden State Warriors, basketball fans everywhere thought it was going to be a runaway game with both Hayward and Hill out of the lineup, but thanks to the late game heroics from Joe Ingles, Shelvin Mack and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz only fell short of the win by seven points; the next meeting wasn’t so great, even with Hayward on the court. For the most part, the Jazz have won the games that they’re supposed to, and it has put them in a good spot this year. That being said, the past couple of weeks have been lackluster, fatigue setting in during their fourth game in five nights.
If the Utah Jazz had a calling card this season, it would be in the form of their defensive prowess. They’ve held opposing teams to a league leading 95.5 points per game and claim the second best defensive rating in the NBA at 104.4 — Golden State holds the number one spot at 103.4. The Jazz don’t force turnovers, intercept a lot of steals, grab a ton of rebounds or block a lot of shots. They rely on their length to get up to shooters and contest shots, taking away or shrinking the paint (thanks in large part to Gobert) and clogging up passing lanes. On top of the points the Jazz allow per game, they own top ranks in 3-pointer attempts (22.7) and made (8.1), opposing field goal percentage inside the arc (.465), effective field goal percentage (.484) and assists (17.7) allowed.
Offensively, the Jazz are the slowest paced team in the NBA, taking a page from the Memphis Grizzlies’ handbook. That’s not to say they aren’t moving the ball on offense; it’s just that they use every bit of time allotted to them, letting their plays develop in half court sets, instead of pushing the ball up the court. Over the course of the season, the Jazz average 0.462 in Field Goal Percentage, 0.362 in 3-Point Percentage and 19.2 in Assists Per Game. When the Jazz played against the Thunder, Nuggets, Lakers and Grizzlies, they were shooting 0.429 from the field, making 0.297 from behind the 3-point line and dishing out 16.75 assists. Lately, the Jazz have stopped moving the ball around and instead are looking for a heavy dose of isolations from Hayward, Alec Burks, and Hood; even Hill is getting in on the iso party. Their lack of ball movement from one side of the court to the other, inadequate utilization of the pick-and-roll, the pick-and-pop and collapsing defenses to get wide open shots on the perimeter were minimal at best. Hill is a very smart and crafty point guard, so why aren’t they running the offense through him more and getting Hood and Hayward the open shots they deserve, or Gobert the open drives to the basket?
The Jazz have slipped at a bad time of the year, and they have no choice but to shape up before the All-Star break. If not, the schedule doesn’t get any easier for them as they make their push into the playoffs. In the month of March, the Jazz play 16 games in total and they only get one day of rest between the majority of them. Their longest breaks are two, two-day breaks in the first and third week of March. If there is ever a time to get tough mentally, it’s now. The Jazz have to finish February strong and prepare for the grueling month of March because nobody is going to feel bad for them and let up if they’re “tired” or banged up. March is going to be the Jazz's training ground for the playoffs, and they know it.