Five Questions For The Utah Jazz Ahead Of The Playoffs

May 17, 2021, 3:30 PM
Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors shoots against Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Ezra...
Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors shoots against Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz are headed to the playoffs with the number one seed in the West for the first time in more than two decades. If they were to advance to the Finals, they’d open the championship series in Utah for the first time in franchise history.

To reach the Finals, they’ll have to work their way through a brutally tough gauntlet of Western Conference teams and answer these five questions before they get there.

Ben Anderson addresses these five questions in the latest episode of the Jazz Notes Podcast, which you can listen to in the player below.

Five Questions Facing The Jazz In The Playoffs

Who Will The Jazz Play In The Playoffs?

The first question facing the Jazz is the most obvious and can probably be safely narrowed down to two teams, but that won’t mean much until they have more clarity on Friday night.

Due to the NBA’s new play-in tournament, the Jazz know they’ll face one of the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, or San Antonio Spurs beginning Sunday.

On Wednesday, the Lakers and Warriors will face off with the winner earning the seventh seed and a first-round matchup against the Phoenix Suns. Later that night, the Grizzlies and Spurs will face one another, with the winner earning the right to play the loser of the Lakers and Warriors on Friday with a chance to earn the eighth seed.

The Jazz will have the advantage of trimming their potential playoff opponent to two teams by late Wednesday, and while the eventual eighth seed will still be worrying about their Friday play-in finale, the Jazz will undoubtedly have a leg up being both well-rested, and better prepared for their first-round opponent.

According to basketball-reference.com, the Lakers have a 54.6 percent chance of earning the seventh seed, a 26.4 percent chance of earning the eighth seed, and a 19 percent chance of falling out of the playoffs completely.

The Warriors have a 45.4 percent chance of climbing to the seventh seed, a 28.7 percent chance of remaining in the eighth seed, and a 25.9 percent chance of missing the playoffs.

The Grizzlies and Spurs have a 34.9 percent combined chance of climbing into the eighth seed.

The Lakers will be favorites to beat the Warriors at home to earn the seventh seed, though the health of LeBron James and Anthony Davis who have been plagued with injuries all year will determine the roster’s ceiling.

The Warriors won eight of their final nine games of the regular season to earn the eighth seed, including wins over the top-seeded Jazz and Suns but also included two victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder, two wins over the New Orleans Pelicans, and a win over the Houston Rockets.

Golden State closed the season with six consecutive games at home.

The Jazz will be hoping to face either the Grizzlies or Spurs in the first round, but are far more likely to wind up with the Lakers or Warriors.

When Will Donovan Mitchell Return?

Lost in the frantic finish for the top seed in the West was the fact that the Jazz played the final 16 games of the season without their leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.

The All-Star guard went down with a severe ankle sprain on April 16 and missed the final three weeks of the NBA season as the Jazz went 10-6 in his absence.

Though their winning percentage slipped without Mitchell in the lineup, they remained one of the league’s most dominant teams. The Jazz owned the league’s best defensive rating over the final 15 games of the season, had the ninth-best offense, and was the top NetRated team at 9.8.

The Jazz evaluated Mitchell’s injury weekly, but never cleared him to play before the end of the regular season. After clinching the top seed in the playoffs, guard Mike Conley offered insight into his backcourt teammate’s injury.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to make it easy on him during the week to get him back in shape and get him back ready to go,” Conley said. “I’m sure he’ll be as confident and ready as ever.”

Last year, Mitchell led all scorers in the postseason averaging 36.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.9 assists while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 51 percent from the three-point line. The guard who two outings of at least 51 points in the Jazz seven-game series loss to the Denver Nuggets.

The team proved they could survive the close to the regular season without Mitchell but will need his elite scoring ability if they want to advance in the playoffs.

What To Expect Of Bojan Bogdanovic?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Jazz generally should have a pretty good idea of what to expect out of their stars come playoff time. As mentioned, Mitchell was the league’s best scorer in the postseason last year.

Despite the popular narrative that Rudy Gobert has been played off the floor in past postseasons, the All-NBA center has career averages of 13.6 points and 10.9 rebounds, while shooting 63 percent from the floor.

In last season’s matchup against MVP favorite Nikola Jokic, Gobert averaged 16.9 points and 11.4 rebounds, while shooting 65 percent from the floor, and the Jazz were 26 points better than Denver during Gobert’s nearly 270 minutes.

Even after a slow adjustment to the Jazz system, Conley averaged 19.8 points and 5.2 assists for the Jazz while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 53 percent from three last year in his five postseason appearances.

Those three players (assuming Mitchell returns) will provide the backbone for the Jazz postseason run, but what can they expect out of Bojan Bogdanovic.

The sharpshooter missed the restart of the NBA season in Orlando after undergoing season-ending wrist surgery in May during the league’s suspension, so when the team takes the floor Sunday, it will be the forward’s first playoff appearance in a Jazz uniform.

Historically, Bogdanovic’s playoff numbers have been a little troubling, especially his shooting percentages in 30 postseason appearances.

The Croatian forward has knocked down just 40 percent of his field-goal attempts in his first four trips to the postseason and just 35 percent of his three-point attempts en route to an 11.2 point per game average.

Now, a few major questions face Bogdanvic entering the postseason.

First, were his poor averages a result of being defended by LeBron James and Jayson Tatum in his last two playoff outings, or is he simply an underwhelming postseason performer.

And second, how will he adjust with both Mitchell and Conley back on the floor, assuming his field-goal attempts will decrease significantly.

Before Mitchell’s ankle injury, Bogdanovic was averaging 15.4 points per game while shooting 42 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three, right around his career averages.

After Mitchell’s injury, the forward’s averages jumped to 22.8 points per game, while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three.

Based on his playoff history, the Jazz would probably prefer to not rely on Bogdanovic to carry such an enormous load offensively but will need his efficiency to remain closer to how he finished the season versus his slow start to the year.

Can Bogdanovic maintain his superb rhythm even if his field goal attempts drop by four per game back to where they were before Mitchell got hurt? The Jazz won’t know until they hit the floor, but it will be a significant piece of their playoff puzzle.

How Big Of An Advantage Is Playing At Home?

While many fans would argue that the Jazz are one of the most consistent franchises in the NBA over the last two decades, they might be surprised to learn just how rarely the Jazz have had home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Though the Jazz have qualified for the playoffs 12 times in the last 20 seasons, they’ve hosted just two playoff series, only one of which came in the opening round. In those series, the Jazz 1-1, having lost to the Dallas Mavericks 3-2 in 2001 and beaten the Warriors 4-1 in 2007.

Otherwise, the Jazz have opened 16 of their last 18 playoff series on the road, and are 5-11 in those series. At home, the Jazz 22-21 in playoff appearances (not counting the Orlando bubble games), and 12-34 in games played on the road.

Considering the Jazz were the lower seed in nearly all of their playoff series, maintaining an above .500 record at home is promising. In the two series where the Jazz were the favorites, they went 5-1 in Utah.

This season, the Jazz had the best home record in the NBA, winning 31 of their 36 games and did so in dominant fashion.

The Jazz had the league’s second-best offensive rating at home at 117.9, the best defensive rating at 105.0, and the best NetRating at 12.9 which is 3.7 points better than the second-rated Suns.

If the Jazz can keep up their dominant home play, they’ll make a deep run in the postseason, a run that could be bolstered by their respectable 21-15 record on the road.

What Will Joe Ingles Offer?

While most eyes will be on the return of Donovan Mitchell (assuming he’s back on the floor), little has been said of what that means for Sixth-Man of the Year candidate Joe Ingles.

The Jazz guard has been one of the best role players in the NBA this season, serving as an invaluable plug-and-play piece in the team’s backcourt.

Ingles started 30 games amid injuries to Mitchell and Conley and the Jazz hardly missed a beat. The Jazz were 22-8 in Ingles starts this season, while the Australian averaged 14.7 points and 5.8 assists in 31 minutes per game.

Off the bench, Ingles averaged 9.9 points and 3.9 assists, all the while shooting a combined 49 percent from the floor and 45 percent for the Jazz this season.

However, Ingles last two playoff series have left a lot to be desired.

Over his last 12 appearances, the guard is averaging just 8.0 points per game and 4.8 assists while shooting 37 percent from the floor including 32 percent from the three-point line.

The shooting percentages would become particularly worrisome if the aforementioned Bogdanovic also struggled to shoot the ball in the playoffs.

As soon as Mitchell is cleared to play, he’ll likely replace Ingles in starting lineup, relegating the veteran guard to playmaking duties off the bench. While Ingles has excelled in that role this season, how will it affect his rhythm after starting the last 16 games of the Jazz?

The guard has been a key cog in the Jazz dominant performance this season, but can he prove that it will carry over to the playoffs?

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Five Questions For The Utah Jazz Ahead Of The Playoffs