NBA@2: Critical Night For The Utah Jazz
On the surface, what’s at stake tonight as the Utah Jazz take on the Golden State Warriors is a spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. Nothing more, nothing less. Going into tonight’s game the Jazz hold the 10th seed in the West, but are just a half-game behind ninth-place Phoenix and a game and a half behind the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets, who are tied for eighth. They are also just two games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers in eleventh.
Welcome to the ever-tightening Western Conference.
There is another story to be told here, one that could be much more significant for the Jazz than whether they are in the eighth seed or the eleventh. It’s a story of old trades and future draft picks. It turns out the future is now for the Jazz, who could hold two first round picks in this summer’s deep NBA draft. The Jazz obtained the Warriors’ first round pick in last season’s Deron Williams trade, but that pick is protected if the Warriors wind up with one of the seven worst records in the NBA this season. If the Warriors drop below that threshold, the pick gets deferred for at least one season and potentially two.
The other pick is a little more straightforward. If the Jazz make the playoffs they lose their pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the Al Jefferson trade.
Suffice to say, there is a lot on the line for the Jazz, and especially tonight.
For his part, Utah Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor says winning is all that matters.
“We’re not playing that game for that draft pick, and this organization and this ownership has never done that,” O’Connor told the Associated Press. “We’re going to try to win the game, try to make the playoffs. That game, that draft pick, means nothing.”
Picks or no picks, the Jazz are playing to win, to make the playoffs. It’s all Ty Corbin will allow his team to think about going into the final three weeks of the season.
“It’s extremely important that we’re in the playoff race and the confidence in the team is going to be huge going forward,” Corbin said. “I tell the guys you’ve got to think you belong and know that you belong, but have got to work to show that you belong,” Corbin said. “Whatever happens after that happens.”
Though they’re not in the top eight right now, there is still a very good chance that this Jazz team could sneak into the playoff picture before the end of the season. Aside from a very tough home-and-home with the San Antonio Spurs, the Jazz have a favorable schedule. They have a chance to control their own destiny in head-to-head match-ups with the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns, play the struggling Portland Trail Blazers twice, and also play the bottom-feeding New Orleans Hornets once. Then there are match-ups against the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks, who fancy themselves contenders but don’t appear to be close to that status.
The Jazz have a clear shot at making the playoffs.
That said, if they don’t make it, it will absolutely be a mixed blessing. First round picks could yield some interesting names this summer . . .and while that is small consolation to missing the playoffs, it is definitely a consolation prize.
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For several years the national media has been doing an admirable job of discounting the San Antonio Spurs. After all, they have an older core and haven’t been to the Finals since 2007, when they won their fourth championship, and have struggled to get out of the first round since then. Even last season, when they were the best team in the Western Conference throughout the regular season, they lost in the first round. Of course, that had a lot to do with a couple of significant injuries that happened right before the playoffs started, but that was just fuel for the fire.
The Spurs are simply too old to sustain a playoff run long enough to get back to the NBA Finals.
This season has been more of a typical year for the Spurs. They hung around the middle of the pack, happily flying under the radar and not exerting too much effort in the process.
Tim Duncan is averaging just 28.7 minutes per game, Tony Parker sits at 33.7 minutes per game, Manu Ginobili – when healthy, sees just 23.7 minutes per contest. Right now the entire team is basically healthy, and Gregg Popovich has 11 players putting in more than 19 minutes a night. The play of rookie Kawhi Leonard has helped in that process, as has the emergence of Tiago Splitter. Adding Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson at the NBA trade deadline has only helped matters.
This season the Spurs look like they will be healthy and deeper than even when the postseason begins, and if the current trend is any indication that could mean trouble for the teams who are expected to be in the Finals mix: Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami.
The Spurs are currently the hottest team in basketball, having won nine straight games, and are on the verge of locking up the Southwest Division title. Only the Miami HEAT have a better home record and only the Thunder and Bulls are better on the road. Only the Thunder have a better record against the Western Conference, and with their two-game losing streak OKC’s lead over the Spurs in the conference is down to one game.
One more slip-up from the Thunder and the Spurs will own the top spot in the West.
It’s more fun to talk about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook than it is Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Derrick Rose and LeBron James are certainly more compelling personalities than Duncan or anyone else in San Antonio. The Spurs want to be as bring as possible off the court, which leads NBA fans to conclude that they are also boring on the court. But losing is never boring, so in that way the Spurs are as interesting as any team in the NBA.
In fact, if they are indeed healthy when the playoffs start, they might just turn out to be the most interesting story of all.
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