Jazz Entering Most Critical Stretch Of Season

Feb 2, 2020, 1:02 PM | Updated: 11:53 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz are entering the most critical stretch of their season to date. Beginning this week, the Jazz have three days rest before hosting to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, then host the Portland Trailblazers Friday, leading up to a three-game stretch against Houston, Dallas, and Miami to enter the All-Star break. 

Between Denver and Portland, the Jazz mist navigate the NBA’s trade deadline, the last day to make significant alterations to the team’s roster before heading into the break and then the stretch run into their push for the playoffs. 

To make matters worse for the Jazz, they’re playing their worst basketball since early December, having lost four straight games that coincide, coincidence or not, with the return of point guard Mike Conley who the team is actively trying to work back into the rotation. 

During the four-game losing streak, the Jazz have the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 120.4, have given up multiple 50 point outings to opposing guards, and have allowed scoring totals of 124, 126, and 127. 

It’s reasonable to expect that the team might be tired, having won 19 of 21 games while playing with a somewhat shortened rotation. The Jazz were also playing against subpar opponents, the majority of whom are fighting simply to get back to a .500 record. 

However, in their most recent four-game losing streak, the Jazz have lost to both Portland and San Antonio, two teams who are under .500, and have avoided a near full NBA roster of players either resting or missing games with injury. None of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Clint Capela, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Mason Plumlee, Zach Collins or Jusif Nurkic suited up against the Jazz though each of their teams coasted to victories. 

Good news for Jazz fans is the defense can and will be fixed. The Jazz have gone through defensive lulls several times this season, each of which Quin Synder seems to have found the cure for in relatively short order. 

The Jazz struggled mightily in the preseason but had the best defensive record for the first several weeks of the regular season. They struggled again in late November-early December, then went on a stretch of 12 games where they allowed 110 points or more just twice. 

Each surge has coincided with an extended break in play where the team has focused on defensive fundamentals. The Jazz had a full week off before the beginning of the regular season where they held five straight teams to under 100 points. Three games into their latter impressive 12-game stretch, the Jazz had three days off to remedy the defensive problems and emerged by holding four straight teams to under 107 points. 

The Jazz are 31-9 when holding teams to 120 points or fewer this season. They’re just 1-8 in games when teams score 121 or more. Considering no team in the NBA this season averages 120 points per game, the Jazz should once again find success as they hold opponents to even average scoring outputs. 

The trade deadline comes at a bizarre time for the team as they work Conley back into the lineup, though adding another player to the guard rotation seems unnecessary. Between Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson, the Jazz have one of the most talented guard rotations in the league and little room for any additional talent. As it is, Emmanuel Mudiay, who is having by the best season of his career has found himself sidelined due to a lack of available minutes. 

With that said, the Jazz could look to beef up their perimeter defense as the Eric Gordon and Damian Lillard 50 point outings recently have to be concerning to the front office. Royce O’Neale is a talented defender, but his best skill set is his versatility more so than his footspeed. Recently the Jazz have failed to keep opposing guards out of the paint off the dribble whether a screen is set or not. It has limited Rudy Gobert’s effectiveness defensively and could be a difficult solution to remedy with the players currently on the roster. 

The Jazz could also use size and versatility in the frontcourt in a reserve role. While both Bojan Bogdanovic and Georges Niang are superb shooters, neither are particularly impactful defensive players and will be targeted on that end of the floor during the postseason. The Jazz could look to find a frontcourt player capable of playing both power forward and center for the postseason before the trade deadline if they’re uncomfortable with their current rotation. 

Possible solutions already on the roster could be two-way player Jarrell Brantley who has spent several days with the Jazz main roster as opposed to the Salt Lake City Stars G-League team recently, or big man Juwan Morgan who has received spot minutes in cleanup duty during garbage time for the Jazz. 

Tony Bradley has been receiving the majority of the backup center minutes for the team over the last month but has missed the last two games with an injury. Adding another capable body to the mix to the team’s frontcourt could have a major impact over the final few months of the regular season. 

The next five games for the Jazz will be a good test as they head into the All-Star break. The Jazz gave up a 27-1 run against the Nuggets but still lost the game by just six points despite Mitchell having his worst game of the season. A rematch against Lillard and the Blazers, before facing the Mavericks and Luka Doncic, Harden and the Rockets, and Jimmy Butler and the Heat will give the team a chance to prove they’ve solved their defensive issues on the perimeter before an eight-day break in mid-February.

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