Lowe: What’s real and what’s not for the shocking Jazz

Lowe: What’s real and what’s not for the shocking Jazz

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When I last saw the Utah Jazz in person a little over a month ago in Miami, they were surprisingly upbeat for an injury-riddled team about to drop to 16-24 six months after their homegrown star jilted them.

They were frustrated, sure. Rudy Gobert, injured again, overflowed with fidgety, pent-up energy. But there was a weird optimism that they were close — a faith in the process. They were doing the little things right, passing and cutting their way into open 3-pointers. They just needed to make more, get Gobert back, and stabilize after a hellacious December schedule that ranked as the toughest calendar month any team will play this season, per ESPN Stats & Information research. They were never as bad as their record; they are not last season’s Miami Heat.

Not even the most cockeyed among them foresaw this: A rollicking 10-game winning streak that has included victories over Golden State, Toronto, and San Antonio (twice!), and rocketed them back into the playoff race. A month ago, it looked like hot-seat holders in Denver, New Orleans and Portland could relax. The Jazz were done, and the LA Clippers were about to trade their way into the lottery.

Welp. We have a legitimate five-team race for the last three Western Conference playoff spots, and if any of the three teams hanging above that tier — San Antonio, Minnesota, Oklahoma City — gets sloppy or suffers a long-term injury, things could get nuts.

Utah has the easiest remaining schedule among all those teams based on current opponent winning percentage. Fifteen of their remaining 25 games are at home. They have the head-to-head tiebreaker edge over New Orleans, Portland and the Clippers going into their final matchups against all three. (They have already split four games against Denver.) The nerds at 538 give Utah a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs, best among this five-team crew.

Making the playoffs would be an important, affirming step. No one will say it — well, Gobert probably would — but they all want to show Gordon Hayward they are fine without him. And for all the pitying talk in the wake of Hayward’s departure about how the Jazz had done everything they could to convince him, they have won one playoff series since 2010.

In the “make-or-miss league” universe, there is a tendency to minimize streaks as the product of luck, and wait for regression to the mean to ruin everything. There is some of that here, but we shouldn’t minimize the Jazz even knowing a drop-off is coming.

Utah during the streak has hit 45.6 percent of its open 3s and 48 percent of its wide-open 3s, per NBA.com, best in the league. They shot just 33 percent and 38 percent, respectively, on those same looks over their first 47 games. Ricky Rubio was on fire from everywhere before missing the last two games with hip soreness: 63 percent in the restricted area, 51 percent on midrangers, an absurd 59 percent on non-corner 3s.

We have seen blips like this from Rubio before, and they have all been illusions. He obviously won’t keep shooting like Steph Curry. (The Rubio-Gobert-Derrick Favors trio had sunk to near unplayable levels of sucktitude before this streak, and I’m not sure one nice stretch signals any sort of long-term viability in the modern NBA. Favors is a free agent anyway, still a decent bet to leave.)

But even if the Jazz settle in as a “pretty good” team in Year 1 post-Hayward, that counts as a huge win. It means they have something real to build on in a core of Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and whoever else is left in two years. It is validation for Quin Snyder’s “advantage basketball” system — and for the broader culture the Dennis Lindsey-Snyder regime has nurtured.

And there have been mini-trends in this streak that should be sustainable, or at least worth monitoring.

• That Utah has done it without Mitchell going bananas every game is encouraging in itself. He has carried them in some games, but Utah also won when Mitchell was out sick in San Antonio — and when he shot 1-of-6, 6-of-21, 4-of-12 and 9-of-28. Mitchell is a star, but the Jazz haven’t needed him to be one every night.

• Ingles, once mocked for looking more like a math teacher than pro basketball player, is in the middle of the best stretch of his life, and now leads the league in 3-point accuracy at 45.7 percent after drilling 44.1 percent last season. His shooting and defense are real, and his playmaking has improved to the level that he functions almost as co-point guard when Rubio or Mitchell is on the bench. (He ran most of the crunch-time offense during Utah’s comeback over the Spurs on Monday.)

A month ago, Ingles appeared to have quaked under a heavier post-Hayward burden. He failed to score more than 10 points in 12 straight games from late December through mid-January, a stretch that included two goose eggs. He still has the worst turnover rate on pick-and-rolls among all ball-handlers.

Defenses know Ingles prefers to dish once he gets into the lane, and they play him that way to an almost comical extreme — laying in wait to intercept passes.

Ingles downloaded that, and finally dared exploit it. He is the league’s best ball-faker outside Manu Ginobili. He knows that if he fakes a pass to Gobert on the pick-and-roll, or even just glances at him, help defenders will lean that way — opening space for layups and floaters Ingles once refused:

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February 14, 2018 at 05:51AM

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