Jazz Beat Rockets, Clinch Top-Two Seed In West

May 9, 2021, 12:11 AM | Updated: 12:12 am
Rudy Gobert - Jordan Clarkson - Utah Jazz - Los Angeles Clippers...
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) talk after a play as Utah Jazz and LA Clippers play in an NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. Utah won 106-100. (Courtesy of Deseret News)
(Courtesy of Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Another night, another milestone for the Utah Jazz who clinched a top-two seed in the Western Conference Playoffs with a win over the Houston Rockets 124-116.

The Jazz swept their final back-to-back series of the season after beating the Denver Nuggets in Utah on Friday night before withstanding a scrappy young Rockets roster.

Georges Niang tied a career-high with 24 points while six Jazz players scored in double-figures to earn the team their 50th win of the season.

The Rockets suited up just eight players and were led by Khyri Thomas and Kenyon Martin Jr. who each scored 27 points.

Jazz Clinch Top Two Seed In West

With Saturday night’s victory, the Jazz have five more wins than the Los Angeles Clippers who have just five games left to play in the regular season.

Even if the Jazz were to lose out and the Clippers went undefeated to close the year, the best LA could do is pull into a tie with the Jazz who own the season series tiebreaker two games to one.

There is potential for the Jazz, Clippers, and Phoenix Suns to all finish with identical records at 50-22, though by winning the Northwest Division, the Jazz would be guaranteed to finish with one of the top two seeds along with the Pacific Division winner.

By earning a top-two seed, the Jazz now find themselves in the precarious situation of potentially facing either the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

Currently, the Lakers and Warriors own the seventh and eighth seeds in the conference and would play one another in the first round of the play-in tournament with the winner earning the seventh seed in the West.

The loser of the two teams would then face the winner of the play-in tournament game between the ninth and tenth ranked teams.

Though the Lakers have struggled significantly of late, they’ve been without superstar LeBron James who is expected to return before the end of the season.

James hasn’t been eliminated earlier than the Finals in his last nine playoff appearances.

The Warriors meanwhile are 12-6 in their last 18 games to climb into the eighth seed in the West, while superstar Steph Curry has averaged 37.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.9 assists in his last 15 outings.

Curry is shooting a mind-numbing 46 percent from three on 15.7 attempts per game during the stretch.

While the Jazz should rightfully enjoy their standing atop the West, their celebration could be short-lived depending on the final standings in the conference.

Jazz Improved Mental Toughness

There seems to be a new level of mental toughness for the Jazz who found ways to overcome endless adversity over the last year.

After a rumored locker room chasm between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell after the Jazz All-Stars became the first two NBA players to test positive for COVID-19, the franchise managed to sign them both to long-term contracts in the offseason.

After blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets in last year’s playoffs, the team returned with most of the same pieces and improved from the sixth-seed in the West to one of the two best teams in the entire NBA this season.

The Jazz withstood an extremely slow start to the season from Bojan Bogdanovic, injuries to Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, and stretches of poor shooting and bad play and still own the best record in the league with just four games remaining on the schedule.

Even against the Rockets, the Jazz let a 15 point first quarter lead slip away, only to control the lead over the game’s final 24 minutes.

With both Mitchell and Conley out of the lineup, the Jazz could have easily slid back in the Western Conference standings over the last seven games, setting into the third seed, but losing confidence down the stretch. Instead, they improved their standing over the Suns entering the final week of the season having won five straight games.

“Going into this year we really realized, ‘Where were we dropping games and not having the most focus and losing games where we should win?'” Georges Niang said of the Jazz mindset entering the season.

“This is when you’ve got to take it to the next level and win those games because those games end up mattering where you dropped one early in the season to a team you shouldn’t have dropped one to and now it’s messing up the seeding.”

Though neither Mitchell nor Conley has a firm return date, the Jazz supporting cast next to Rudy Gobert and the two All-Stars is playing its best basketball of the season as the team prepares for a treacherous postseason gauntlet.

While the team’s top-tier talent and overall depth deserve credit for the Jazz success, their improved mental toughness shouldn’t be overlooked.

Last Week Of The Season

After sweeping their last homestand of the season, the Jazz now finish the year playing three of their final four games on the road. Unless the Jazz are deadset on earning the top seed in the West, Quin Snyder could use the opportunity to find significant rest for most of his starters.

The Jazz open the week Monday at Golden State against the Warriors who are fighting to hold onto the eighth-seed in the play-in tournament.

They then return home for their final home game of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers who currently sit 1.5 games ahead of the Lakers for the sixth-seed in the West.

The Jazz close the year with a two-game road trip in Oklahoma City against the scrappy Thunder and in Sacramento who could be needing a win to earn the final spot in the play-in tournament.

If they are intent on earning home-court advantage throughout the playoffs Snyder could continue to play his starters regular minutes understanding the Jazz control their own destiny for the top spot in the West.

If the Jazz are more concerned with entering the playoffs as healthy as possible, Snyder could be satisfied with the Jazz having already locked up a top-two seed in the playoffs and give his stars most of the next two weeks off before opening the playoffs in Salt Lake City on May 22.

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