Jazz Have Reasons For Hope, Pessimism At All-Star Break

Feb 18, 2022, 2:22 PM

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert defends a shot by Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (Photo by Ka...

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert defends a shot by Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – It looked like the Utah Jazz were going to head into the NBA All-Star break on a high note, leading by 12 midway through the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers.

That would have given the Jazz their seventh straight win, what would have been the longest winning streak in the NBA at the break, and a nearly fully healthy roster ahead of the stretch run before the playoffs.

Instead, the Jazz watched their double-digit lead rapidly slip away, falling victim to an undersized, undermanned Lakers team that brought back memories of last season’s painful playoff exit, and fear that they may be doomed for a similar outcome this season.

With that in mind, let’s explore the reasons for hope, and pessimism at the All-Star break for the Jazz.

Jazz Reasons For Hope At All-Star Break

After a dreadful January, the Jazz have been one of the league’s best teams statistically in February, even without Rudy Gobert for all of two games.

The Jazz, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, and Memphis Grizzlies each lost only one game in the month, and the numbers behind the team’s streak are promising.

Since February 1, the Jazz own the NBA’s second-best offensive rating at 120.1, even with Wednesday’s miserable 101 point outing in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Jazz have the league’s third-best rating, coming in at 105.1 points per 100 possessions in their last seven games, and haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than 106 points per game this month.

Compare that to January when the injury-riddled Jazz had the league’s 14th best offensive rating and 26th best defensive rating, and it’s safe to say the team has seen a dramatic uptick in their play.

As previously mentioned, the Jazz only had Gobert for their final two games before the All-Star break, and still managed to have one of the top defenses in the league in February. That’s promising growth for a team that cratered in January without the three-time Defensive Player of the Year on the court.

Gobert should be healthier and fresher when he returns from the All-Star break having played just two games since January 24, while Donovan Mitchell has returned from his nine-game absence due to a concussion playing some the best basketball of his career.

“We’ve done a lot of good things the past month, week, 2-3 weeks, however long it’s been,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got some work to do as a group but I think we can look back especially at the past month, really since everyone has been out, even though January was rough and say ‘Okay, we can really do some things.'”

Since returning, Mitchell is averaging 27.3 points per game, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.5 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 43 percent from the three-point line.

Better yet, Mitchell’s defense has never been better and could be a difference-making change in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, Joe Ingles time with the Jazz came to an end after suffering a season-ending ACL tear midway through January, though that opened minutes for Trent Forrest, Danuel House Jr., and Eric Paschall, all of whom have shown promise in his absence and could provide some much-needed versatility on both ends of the floor over the final months of the regular season.

Reasons For Pessimism

Though February had been perhaps the brightest point of the season to date for the Jazz, much of that goodwill was undone by Wednesday’s loss in LA.

First and foremost, the game had eerie similarities to the Jazz past playoff appearances where much of the team watched Mitchell dominate offensively en route to 37 points but failed to offer much around him.

Gobert struggled to score against the undersized Lakers who eliminated the center as a lob threat, just as the Clippers did last year in the playoffs when they went small.

“This is an unfortunate way to go into the All-Star break because it’s a game I think we felt good about,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the loss. “We felt good about the way we were playing, and then we didn’t and we lost the game.”

Can the Jazz prove they can overcome less conventional lineups when they have to beat them four times in a seven-game series? They haven’t done so in the regular season, why will that change in the playoffs?

Additionally, Wednesday’s loss was the 10th time this season the Jazz have lost a game after leading by double-digits, a concerning sign about their ability to play a full 48 minutes which will be crucial in the playoffs.

As for February’s success prior to the Lakers’ loss, it’s not without its question marks either.

Three of the six wins game against the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, and Orlando Magic, the true cellar-dwellers of the NBA.

The Jazz beat the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. they beat the Brookyln Nets without Kevin Durant or James Harden, and they beat the Golden State Warriors without Klay Thompson or Draymond Green.

While the wins were an important reprieve from a disastrous January, they didn’t exactly serve as a playoff preview.

And though the Jazz have gotten promising performances from Forrest, House Jr., and Paschall in recent weeks, how comfortable are they playing those players in the playoffs.

There’s a significant difference between players who impact the game simply by playing hard every night in the regular season and those whose talent truly rises above in the playoffs when every team is playing each game like it’s their last.

Ingles was having a down season this year but has proven to be a strong contributor in the postseason. Are any of the Jazz’s new faces ready to step up to that feat? It’s a major question that they won’t have an answer for until they’re actually on the court in the playoffs.

Finally, what can the Jazz expect from Mike Conley for the rest of the season? After being one of the most injury-prone players on the Jazz over the last two seasons, Conley is the team’s lone star to avoid missing long stretches of games so far this season.

But, perhaps those minutes finally caught up with the guard in February.

Conley saw his numbers plunge during the month as the former All-Star averaged just 11.1 points, 5.4 assists, and 3.3 rebounds while shooting a lowly 33 percent from the floor and 30 percent from the three-point line.

The Jazz coaching staff had been careful with Conley all season in hopes of keeping him healthy and well-rested for the team’s playoff run. However, the guard got just one day off since early January when the team’s injuries began to pile up and may have emptied his tank more at mid-season than they had hoped.

The team will have nine days off before they return next Friday with a potential first-round playoff preview against the Dallas Mavericks, and should they advance, a second-round playoff preview against the Phoenix Suns the following Sunday.

As the Jazz enter the All-Star break with reasons for hope, and pessimism, those two games fresh out of the gate will give fans a better idea of where their expectations should fall.

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Jazz Have Reasons For Hope, Pessimism At All-Star Break