I admit, I was skeptical when fellow Utah Jazz fans talked about the playoffs as the season began. Sure, there was a decent base to build on, but who knew how well everything would gel together under a new, untested coach.
After all, the Jazz are in “rebuilding mode,” right?
Certainly does not look like it, not with the way they have put together a six-game win streak against some of the best teams in the Western Conference, punctuated with their recent dismantling of the Denver Nuggets.
Denver’s team looked completely shell-shocked about midway through the third quarter, and that remained throughout the final minutes of the 121-102 victory in Salt Lake City.
A victory that put the Jazz in seventh place in the Western Conference, second in the Northwest Division.
The team seems to be walking with swagger, but how did they get to this point?
First, Al Jefferson is a complete beast right now.
An illustration of that was a shot he pulled off against Andre Miller in the beginning of the fourth quarter. After a switch left the ex-Ute point guard covering Big Al in the paint, Miller did a veteran move and simply wrapped up Jefferson to prevent an easy basket.
Jefferson was still able to make a shot with his arms pinned to his side, banking in a five-foot flick shot from the hip, while drawing a foul.
Jefferson scored a game-high 23 points, pulled down eight rebounds, but nearly as important, he had three smart assists. Watching him catch the ball and actually look for open teammates makes me all warm inside.
Devin Harris is incredibly frustrating to watch at times, something many must have said at least once throughout the season.
There he was, knocking down three-point shots and dropping dimes, helping to lift the team on the offensive end, yet he seemed to be asleep on defense. Though not always true, at times it still seems as though he’s playing at three-fourths speed when the Jazz do not have the ball.
That will need to change if Utah wants to get past the first round of the playoffs.
Nonetheless, Harris had a huge night scoring 13 points while adding nine assists. I was so hoping to see him get a double-double that I tried willing that extra assist, but to no avail. Any night Harris has two steals and two threes is a good night, though.
He nearly made the roof collapse on a slashing dunk with 4:31 left in the third quarter. It was part of a 20-7 scoring run, one where Harris seemed to be playing like an All-Star again, and a run that ripped the life from the Nuggets.
One major turning point during that run was when Arron Afflalo threw an elbow into the face of Gordon Hayward underneath the basket. His jab cost him a flagrant 2, an ejection from the game and it confirmed what was only beginning to sink in for anyone watching: This was officially a blowout.
Speaking of the sophomore swing man from Butler, and I cannot believe I’m thinking this or writing it down, but Gordon Hayward looks a lot like Andrei Kirilenko right now.
Think about it. Both are rangy/long players, they both fill up stat sheets (not necessarily to the brim, but across the board) and both are deceptively good. Plus, their hairstyles make you scratch your head a bit.
Hayward had another fantastic evening, scoring 15 points, while adding seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and three blocks. He was simply everywhere on the court at times, which immediately made me think of AK-47.
Admittedly, Hayward is not at Kirilenko’s level, and may never be, but having someone on the floor with an inkling of AK’s hustle must make coach Tyrone Corbin a happy man.
Defense seemed to be driving the night for the Utah jazz, and it has been a big reason for their recent six-game surge. Though they gave up over 100 points to the Nuggets, they were constantly harassing Denver with eight blocks, 10 steals and 27 defensive rebounds.
Denver’s JaVale McGee seemed to own the paint at times, blocking shots and throw-down dunks in a prolific second quarter, but the Nuggets simply could not contain Utah as the night went on.
The Jazz did give up too many offensive boards (16), but if you are shooting nearly 60 percent (59.3), those are forgivable.
Jamaal Tinsley continues to play well, making some crisp passes and generally taking decent shots. At times, he seems a bit overzealous, putting up shots too quickly, but overall, he looks like he is in midseason form.
Strange, because he has not played much prior to Earl Watson going down with an injury.
Tinsley just seems to get the ball right where the bigs need it, leading to several easy baskets throughout the night.
The usual contributors of Paul Millsap (14 points, six rebounds) and Derrick Favors (12 points, seven rebounds) made a solid impact on the game, and both C.J. Miles and Alec Burks are humming along right now.
Miles was as comfortable as he has been in a while against Denver, slashing to the hoop for some dunks and stopping and popping comfortably.
Burks continues to get to line, something the Jazz need to do more consistently, and he was one of seven people to contribute 12-plus points on the night.
With the way the Jazz are playing right now, it is not a question of will they make it in the playoffs, but rather who will they be playing when they get there.
Ten of their last 18 games will be against other teams they are battling with for playoff position, so by no means can they relax. This huge win, and their recent streak, should give them a little extra bounce in their step in the final stretch of the season.