The Jazz are half a game out of the playoffs right now, and, as Steve Luhm pointed out earlier on Twitter, only two and a half games out of the number four spot, giving them home-court advantage in the first round. There are twenty games remaining before the post-season, and thankfully for Utah fans, the schedule for players in a note jersey could be much more terrifying.
Utah does play 11 of the final 20 on the road, and 8 of those games are back-to-backs. Certainly the most terrifying of those back-to-backs is playing the Spurs in Texas on April 8th, then having to face them the next day at the ESA. But otherwise, the schedule should be manageable should Corbin continue leading his team down this frankly astounding post-All Star break path:
· There are ten remaining games against teams with records currently worse than the Jazz (3/22@SAC, 3/26@NJN, 3/30vSAC, 4/2@POR, 4/4vPHX, 4/6vGSW, 4/13@NOH, 4/18@POR, 4/24vPHX, 4/26vPOR).
· There are four games against teams currently with superior records but by a margin of two or less games (3/23vDEN, 3/28@BOS, 4/11@HOU, 4/14@MEM).
· That leaves the Jazz with six games against division and conference favorites (3/25@ATL, 3/31@LAC, 4/8@SAS, 4/9vSAS, 4/16vDAL, 4/21vORL).
There are a bunch of reasons why I feel this schedule should work to Utah’s advantage. First, the final three games of the season (ORL, PHX, POR) are all played in Salt Lake City, with plenty of rest to prep for both the Magic and Suns games. Dwight and the Magic also have a nice break before the April 21st game (both UTA and ORL play their previous game on the 18th), but while the Jazz only have the short flight from Portland home, Orlando has to travel from Boston (and play at altitude late in the season). This travel advantage doesn’t translate for the Phoenix game, unfortunately.
Second, the Jazz play their toughest road games in the next two and a half weeks, starting with Atlanta on Sunday night. This is good news considering the wave of excitement and energy (not to mention wins) the Jazz are currently enjoying. The Jazz’s final three games against the league’s best are all going to happen on 300 West and South Temple.
Third, of cellar-dwellers and teams slumping in that direction, the Jazz get a nice handful of such teams late in the season. Barring a bunch of New Orleans moments (why must we play down, why??), there should be a gang of relatively easy W’s. We have two games against the 17-29 Kings (3/22 and 3/30), one against Deron and the 15-32 Nets (3/26), one against the 18-25 Warriors (4/6), one (revenge) game against the Hornets (4/13), and three against poor, poor put-a-bird-on-it Portland (4/2, 4/18 and the season closer on 4/26). That’s eight gimmies if the Jazz can keep their heads on straight.
Fourth, assuming the Jazz beat only the worst inferior teams mentioned in point three above, split with similar teams, and take home two wins against the big boys, that’s 12 wins to close out the season and the Jazz end up with a .545 record. That alone is good enough to bump Denver out of 7th right now. But that assumes the Jazz can’t top the Suns in one or both of their in-Utah meetings. Taking two of the games against Denver, Boston, Houston or Memphis is modestly realistic. Three of those four games are on the road, and Denver likely hasn’t forgotten their home loss to the Jazz back in January. Playing in Boston is tough (such an amazing arena and fans!). Houston and Memphis are, obviously, the most available games of that group of four. And of the big boy games, Atlanta and the Clippers are not invincible, plus we get three at home. Considering all of this, let’s assume the Jazz win 9 of 10 against worse-record contenders (we’ll say Nash snags another W), beat HOU and MEM, and somehow manage to win four of those six elite-team contests. Now we’re talking about a team that finishes 39-27. That’s a .591 record which bumps the Clippers out of forth (currently at .578). Obviously that’s a best-case scenario and probably not all that likely. But it’s also not impossible.
Finally, assume that the three current playoff teams within two games of the Jazz (HOU, DEN, MEM) continue on pace through the rest of their games. To get to fourth, the Jazz need to best those three plus Dallas and the Clippers.
· The Clippers are 6-7 (.462) since March 1, a pace good enough to land them between Minny and Portland for the year. The Clippers have 21 games remaining; if they step up a bit and finish 11-10 that’ll put LAC at 37-29 going into the playoffs. That’s a .560 record on the season, slotting them between Memphis and Denver. 11 of the remaining 21 games are on the road, though April is far more road heavy than March (9 of 14 April games are on the road). They have ten back-to-back games remaining as well. However, it’s entirely possible that the Clippers turn the ship around (ha!) and return to form, as they only face 6 top-tier opponents before the post-season (but only 7 lotto-bound franchises).
· Currently Dirk and the crew are riding a 4-game win streak (including a 17-point blowout of Denver at The Can on Monday), but they also have lost 8 of their last 14. The reigning champs are still a savvy team, and more likely than not, this streak is the beginning of a serious push to land a division title and home court advantage. But the nature of DAL’s remaining schedule favors a more modest picture. Dallas has 19 games to play, with 7 of those games against top-4 teams. 11 of the 19 are away games for the Mavs, and 10 are back-to-backs. Dallas does still get to see ten games against sub-.500 teams, but six of those games are on the road, and two of them are against the Knicks (if that means anything).
Between these two teams, I think the Clippers probably don’t hang on to the four spot in the West. Given the remaining schedule and the recently blasé ball, they don’t stay 7.5 games ahead of the Jazz for long. The Mavs are more likely to continue with their existing pace, if not improve their winning percentage.
So what’s the takeaway here? A good close to the season puts the Jazz at .545; a great close wraps up at .591 (see point four). It’s unlikely that Houston, Denver, or Memphis is going to surge much at this point, and the Clippers are trending downwards. So to see a Jazz team that ends the season in fourth in the West, there are two things will suggest the gods are smiling on The House That Larry Built.
First is to see the Mavs struggle as the season winds down. That .591 record is good enough for the Jazz to push the Mavs out of the top four by itself, but with the more realistic .545 Denver is going to have to finish 9-13 (not to mention that .545 isn’t enough to move past Memphis). For a team with Dirk and the Jet attempting to repeat a championship, that’s not terribly likely.
The other will be to see the Jazz win one or both of the back-to-backs against the Spurs. Those two games are games 11 and 12 of the 20 remaining, and the Jazz’s final back-to-back. Beating the #2 team in the West obviously would be a huge ego boost going into the final stretch, where the Jazz are likely going to be controlling their own destiny as to who they will face in the first round. If the Jazz can beat SAS twice, it makes finishing sixth or seventh much less intimidating and gives us momentum going against (likely) them in round one. Lose both of them, and it seems that the .545 record is going to be a tough nut to crack.