The father of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant had a simple message for Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell after the Jazz eliminated his son’s team in five games: “I hope the Jazz win the championship.”
The Jazz once had one of the most famous duos ever in Hall of Famers in John Stockton and Karl Malone, but the two were never able to capture a league title, feeling the full wrath of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. If this year’s version of the Jazz can fulfill Morant’s prophecy and capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it would be the first in the organization’s history.
A Sign of Things to Come?
Utah has held the best record in the Western Conference without interruption dating back to February 2nd, overpowering a loaded Western Conference that included the championship favorite Los Angeles teams and the Denver Nuggets.
The Jazz was the only team to send three representatives to the All-Star game this season, with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Mike Conley getting the call. Conley also became the oldest first-time All-Star in NBA history, making his debut at 33 years of age.
Utah has been one of the premier defensive teams in the league for a few seasons and counting but managed to couple these abilities with tremendous distance shooting this season, taking and making more three-pointers than any other team and finishing fifth in conversion rate. Jordan Clarkson headlined a group of seven Jazz players that made over 100 triples this season, three of which shot over 41% from deep, and was voted as NBA Sixth Man of the Year due to his exceptional performances for the league’s best regular-season team.
The Western Conference champs used a long-range barrage to help close out their first-round series with the Grizzlies, sinking nine threes in the first twelve minutes en route to a 47-27 opening period.
Fear the Jazz
Donovan Mitchell is the ringleader for the Jazz, and although he missed Game One recovering from a sprained ankle, he appears to be back at his usual 26.4-point per night self. Mitchell has a career-high of 57 points and is one of four players in NBA history with multiple 50-point games in one series, joining Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Jamal Murray, although he is yet to score 50 in a regular-season game.
Rudy Gobert has received his share of criticism for a few lowlight-reel moments defending on the perimeter and missed shots around the rim, but he has been nothing short of excellent this season. The French-born center averaged 14.3 points and 13.5 rebounds and finished 14th in Player Efficiency Rating in the regular season, and is also in the running for his third Defensive Player of the Year award.
Looking around the league, the Jazz seems comfortable with most of their potential matchups: they went 2-1 against every team remaining in the Western Conference Playoffs except for the Phoenix Suns, who swept their southwest rivals 3-0. The Jazz would not have to face the Suns until the Conference Finals if both teams were to advance that far.
Utah was the League’s Best Team
Sure, they may have been playing late at night in a small market, but the Jazz will back themselves to defeat any Eastern Conference opponent on the biggest stage, whether it be James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving’s Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokoumpo’s Milwaukee Bucks or Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers.
Utah finished the regular season campaign with the third-best team defensive rating, trailing only the Los Angeles Lakers and the 76ers, and are playing up to a 10-man rotation, affording the members of their rotation more rest than what will be received by opposing players.
Utah can go big with Gobert, Ersan Ilyasova, and Derrick Favors, spread the floor with any of their terrific wing shooters, run Mitchell and Conley out of the isolation, or make defensive substitutions with specialist Royce O’Neal leading taking the primary assignment. The Jazz’s flexibility schematically makes them a nightmare to plan for before and during the game and gives them a leg up on everyone else.
So, Can They Win it All?
Realistically, yes. They will be pushed by at least one of the high-octane offenses that are becoming more prominent in the league, but if their shooting and defensive integrity hold up, they can do it.
The Jazz’s biggest fear should be a lack of experience from players and coaches alike, but they play with a chip on their shoulder and have no shortage of reliable clutch players. The Dallas Mavericks and the Suns could do Utah a huge favor by eliminating both LA teams in the first round, which would give the Jazz all of the confidence they need to breeze past the Western Conference competition.
If given the option between themselves and the field, Utah would be within the realm of reason to pick themselves as future Western Conference representatives; only time will tell how close they will come.
Grant Mitchell is a sportswriter and multimedia contributor for the Sports 2.0 Network dealing with basketball, football, soccer, and other major sports: you can connect with him on Twitter @milemitchell to stay up to date with the latest sports news and to engage personally with him.