SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz won their first game in Orlando, picking a 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA reopener. The win pushed the Jazz 1.5 games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, strengthening the team’s grasp on the Western Conference’s fourth seed. Now, with seven games remaining the Jazz face a potentially difficult question. What is more important for the team, a better playoff seed, or a better first and second-round matchup?
The Jazz have historically been one of the NBA’s best home-court teams with the benefit of playing at altitude and engaged home crowd. That has given the Jazz a stark edge in the postseason matchups, and a strong motivator to earn home-court advantage. However, with the remainder of the NBA season being played in crowdless arenas in Orlando, neither of those advantages apply to the Jazz.
As a result, the Jazz may benefit most from playing the opponent they matchup with best in the first round, rather simply shooting for the highest seed.
Western Conference Playoff Picture
The Jazz can’t fall further than the West’s seventh seed, or climb higher than the second seed. Therefore, they won’t face either the Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trailblazers, Sacramento Kings, or New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. That leaves the Dallas Mavericks, the Rockets, Thunder, the Denver Nuggets, and the Los Angeles Clippers of potential opponents in the first round.
As it stands, the Jazz are just one game back of the Nuggets for the West’s third seed, and two games back of the Clippers for the second seed. With seven games remaining, both spots are very much in play for the Jazz.
Similarly, just three games separate the Jazz from the Thunder, Rockets, and seventh-seeded Mavericks. With the Jazz playing both the Thunder and Mavericks over the next seven games, there’s significant potential for the Western Conference Playoffs picture to change.
The Jazz don’t play either the Nuggets or Clippers before the end of the seeding stage.
Who Do The Jazz Matchup With Best?
The Jazz have seen mixed success against the five potential playoff opponents they could face when the postseason begins in mid-August.
Record Against Dallas Mavericks: 2-0
Based on available talent, and previous success, the Jazz would benefit most from facing the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. Based on current matchups, the Jazz could face Dallas in a 4-5, 3-6, 2-7 matchup if their standings were to match up by seasons end. The Jazz have a perfect 2-0 record against the Mavericks this season.
Record Against Los Angeles Clippers: 2-1
The Jazz have a surprising 2-1 record against the Clippers, including an impressive win against a roster that featured both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in late December. The Clippers lost their first game inside the NBA bubble against the Los Angeles Lakers, nearly ending their hopes of earning the West’s top overall seed.
Despite the Jazz record against the Clippers, Leonard is a proven playoff performer, becoming one of the few players in league history to win a Finals MVP trophy with two different teams.
The odds of facing the Clippers in the first round are narrow for the Jazz. The Jazz would likely have to fall either the seventh seed in the West or see the Clippers get overtaken by the Nuggets, and either Thunder or Rockets in the next seven games.
Record Against Thunder: 1-1
The Jazz will match up with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, providing a potential first-round playoff preview for both teams. The Jazz have split the season series with the Thunder, winning the season opener in Salt Lake City before struggling on the road in Oklahoma in December.
While the Thunder lack superstar talent, they’ve managed the put together the league’s third-best record since Thanksgiving. According to ESPN, the Jazz and Thunder are the league’s most likely 4-5 matchup in the West, adding extra intrigue to the game.
Record Against Rockets: 1-2
Despite stealing an improbable road win on a Bojan Bogdanovic buzzer-beater, there may be no team the Jazz would prefer to face less than the Houston Rockets. Houston has made quick work of the Jazz in consecutive playoff series over the last two years and still gave the Jazz problems in three regular-season matchups this season.
The Rockets struggled heading into the NBA’s hiatus, winning just one of their final five games. As a result, the Jazz would be wise to see if Houston has righted their wrongs before aiming to avoid a potential first-round matchup. However, if James Harden and Russell Westbrook appear to have the Rockets on the right track, facing Houston might be the worst-case scenario for the Jazz.
Record Against Nuggets 0-2
The Jazz have their worst record against any potential playoff opponent when facing the Denver Nuggets this season. The Nuggets have outlasted the Jazz in two close matchups, including once when Denver was severely short-handed in Salt Lake City on the second night of a back to back.
Though just because the Jazz struggled with Denver in two meetings this season doesn’t mean they should avoid the Nugget at all costs. the Jazz have had moderate success against Mike Malone’s team over the last several years, with a combined 5-5 record over the last two and a half seasons.
Denver was pushed to seven games by the far inferior San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs last season and were eliminated by the Portland Trailblazers in round two. Facing Denver would be a tough matchup for the Jazz, but far from unwinnable.
If the Jazz don’t like their potential matchup with either the Rockets or Thunder in the first round, falling to the sixth seed to face the Nuggets may have some value.
Benefits Of Controlling Final Standings
There are additional benefits beyond lining up the ideal first-round playoff matchup for the Jazz. Outside of giving the franchise the best opportunity to advance, the Jazz could curate a scenario where they avoid the top-seeded Lakers in the second round.
The Jazz are 0-2 against Los Angeles this season, and LeBron James hasn’t made a history of losing playoff series before he reaches the Finals. While facing the Clippers in a likely second-round matchup is less than ideal, the Jazz have shown success against the Lakers cross-town rivals this season.
Having home-court advantage is a key component for the Jazz most season. With the advantage of playing at altitude and a raucous crowd at their back, it’s hard to win road games in Salt Lake City in the playoffs. Without those benefits of playing at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, the Jazz may benefit more by trying to handpick their first-round opponent than they would by trying to earn the highest seed regardless of matchup.