With another week left of a regular season that’s had no shortage of surprises, it would seem pointless to rule anything out or take anything for granted.
If we’d done that earlier this season — and let’s be honest, some of you all did do that — we might have missed the Celtics taking the league by storm and the Lakers crumbling like a vanilla wafer. Yet even with countless story lines having taken place already, the best stories may still be unwritten. After all, this is the NBA, where amazing happens.
With all that said, it’d still be understandable if a segment of Jazz fans treated the remainder of this season the way many of us would a late-game blowout: essentially wanting to get a head start to the car, as things are beginning to look all but over.
Utah, which held the NBA’s best record last season only to be bounced in the second round by a Clippers club that lost Kawhi Leonard mid-series, appears to be coming apart at the seams lately. The Jazz have dropped six of their last seven, with the lone win coming against the Lakers, who alone are arguably the league’s biggest disappointment in recent years.
Adding to the concerns, two of the losses during that span took place after the Jazz blew leads of 20-plus points against the Stephen Curry-less Warriors and the Clippers — a defeat that undoubtedly brought a wave of bad feelings, given the flashbacks to last postseason.
Between the latest drought, the small, yet palpable bickering that seems to be taking place in the media with the team as of late and the repeated shortcomings in the playoffs, we could be seeing the music come to a close in Utah soon.
“It feels like a very good chapter in Jazz history is coming to a close at the end of the first round,” said ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon, who’s written at length on the club in recent years, on The Lowe Post podcast last week. “Unless they catch lightning in a bottle, and all the friction this team has gets solved in the next couple weeks, it feels like they’re a one-and-done team. And if they’re one and done, I do believe there will be franchise-altering changes this summer that could involve pretty much anyone that you would want to name. “
In his newsletter, NBA insider Marc Stein reported that coach Quin Snyder’s name will be linked with the Lakers should Los Angeles move on from Frank Vogel. In a separate post, he suggested that the Mavs and Raptors would likely be suitors for Rudy Gobert if the Jazz opt to blow things up and move the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. And of course Donovan Mitchell, the latest small-market star who folks assumes might be happier somewhere else, is always mentioned in connection with other teams and will continue to be unless he expresses a desire to stay in Utah.
But the problems in Salt Lake City are plentiful. Forward Rudy Gay, brought in as a small-ball center during the offseason to give the team more versatility against playoff clubs that fire at will from outside, has been tethered to the bench the past couple of games, a concession that the move hasn ‘ t reaped the benefits Utah hoped for. (Step right up, Danuel House and Juancho Hernangomez!) The defense continues to be particularly leaky at times along the perimeter, even for a club that intentionally funnels much of the action toward its rim-protecting powerhouse in Gobert. Holding onto leads has been an issue, both during the skid and just generally. Utah lost six games in which it held a lead of 15 points or more, according to data from Radar360. Only the Knicks have lost more such games.
And the club’s offense — the most efficient in the sport — has been hard to watch at times, too, particularly in the late, stagnant stages, where contests are won and lost. Mitchell, the franchise star, owns a ghastly 41.4% true shooting percentage in clutch scenarios this season; he’s 33rd out of the 34 players who have taken at least 50 shots in those moments. In fact, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokić, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant — guys who were all mentioned as MVP candidates at some point or another during the season — are the only players who’ve hoisted more attempts than Mitchell in those game -defining sequences.
All year, even with a respectable 46–32 mark, the Jazz have seemed unable to withstand a real punch from their opponents. They’ve managed to win an NBA-low four games after falling behind by 10 points or more, per Radar360. Just recently, they haven’t been able to stop the bleeding as opponents mount enormous comebacks.
The question now, with the future of the Jazz on the line, is whether they can right the ship to make one last stand after having tasted their own blood to close a rough regular season.
Meat and potatoes: Catching you up on the past week
If you’re looking for good stuff to read on the Eastern Conference contenders, I’ve got you covered. My teammates wrote and spoke at length on the East’s upper echelon last week.
Chris Mannix wrote a fantastic daily cover piece on Joel Embiid that delved into what the past year has been like for him as the Sixers’ leader while dealing with the Ben Simmons drama.
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“I was pissed off. There were so many times that I thought I’d really lose it, ”Embiid told him of the saga.
Michael Pina and Rohan Nadkarni each wrote about the Heat, who, barring a thud of an ending, figure to land as the No. 1 seed, albeit with a host of pressing issues that could use addressing in the near future. Michael wrote about the questions that face the hard-nosed club as the playoffs loom, while Rohan spoke with Jimmy Butler about his coffee obsession of him. (Michael and Rohan also talked with each other on SI ‘s Open Floor podcast about how concerned they are about the key issue staring Miami in the face: Who is going to close out games for the Heat when it matters most?)
Rohan also wrote on the Bucks and how they could quietly repeat as everyone else takes notice of Miami, Philly, Boston and even Brooklyn, if the Nets get through the play-in round.
My teammate Howard Beck hosted Stan Van Gundy on his podcast to gauge the ex-coach’s opinion on the relatively open Coach of the Year race. Van Gundy heaped praise on Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins — a subject that dovetails with what I wrote about last week, in looking at how on earth a young Memphis team has managed to go 20–2 without star guard Ja Morant.
Rounding out our NBA stuff, I really enjoyed this read by Michael Shapiro, who handed out a unique set of superlative-based rookie awards.
Lastly, in case you missed it, the best piece I read last week was this daily cover from Jeff Pearlman on Tony Rodriguez. Rodriguez was the witness to the awful, fatal Henry Ruggs III crash, and the man who tried, unsuccessfully, to save Tina Tintor from the burning car. It’s not a basketball story, but it is some of the best, most harrowing writing you’ll ever read.
The race to the bottom
With the regular season winding down, and basically just play-in drama left to hash out, I watched the Nets-Hawks game Saturday with a decent amount of intrigue.
It would have been cool enough to watch Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combine for 86 points in any scenario. But to watch them do it out of near necessity, in an effort to land in the seventh or eighth spot as opposed to the ninth or 10th hole, to avoid needing two play-in contests? That would be an incentive for just about anyone. (Incredibly, the career-high 55 from Durant and 31 for Irving weren’t enough for Brooklyn, and the Hawks won, 122–115.)
But I couldn’t help but laugh at the juxtaposition the following day as I watched the Pacers host the Pistons in a game that I’m not sure certain members of Detroit’s organization wanted to win.
The backstory: Detroit has been relatively hot lately. Emphasis on “relatively.” Entering Sunday, the Pistons had won a pair of games in a row, but had been competitive — with a chance to win just about every game they’ve played — for four straight weeks. And with the late-season win streak, Detroit had 22 victories, tied for third-worst in the NBA with Oklahoma City. That’s a meaningful point because with the current lottery rules, the three worst clubs, by record, each land the best odds (14%) to win the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery. To finish fourth-worst would mean reduced odds, at 11.5%, to win the lotto.
In light of that, it might’ve been mere coincidence that last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Rookie of the Year candidate Cade Cunningham, sat out Sunday’s game. Yes, he’s just 20, and Detroit enjoyed a day off between its games. But you never know when the body may need a rest!
Even with him sitting out — and Jerami Grant out the rest of the year due to a calf strain — the Pistons held a 98–91 advantage on the road over the Pacers heading into the fourth.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who’d subbed out Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart earlier in the third quarter, never bothered to sub his best players back into the game, despite it being a single-digit contest for much of the final period, even when the lead was trimmed to four. Casey even utilized a struggling, game-ending lineup featuring Carsen Edwards, who’d been signed just hours before the contest. That grouping, as pointed out by sharp-eyed Pacers analyst Caitlin Coopershot less than 30% over the final nine minutes of play.
But the Pistons, seemingly doing all it could to lose, held on to win anyway. (It’s unclear what this says about Indiana, which got 19 points out of Buddy Hield and an incredible 19-point, nine-rebound, 17-assist, zero-turnover performance from Tyrese Haliburton.)
Funny enough, though, the win Sunday didn’t cost the Pistons any ground in the battle for the third-worst mark. That same day, OKC snatched a game from the league-leading Suns. (In case you weren’t aware, the Thunder have shut down a number of players, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Josh Giddey and Darius Bazley with various injuries.)
It may not be watching KD and Kyrie scrap for one of the final playoff spots. But strangely enough, the Thunder and Pistons conundrum is entertaining in its own, battle-to-the-bottom sort of way. And hey, who knows? We could all look back on this stretch a year from now and potentially say it was the beginning of something much bigger for the Pistons organization.
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