Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan ought to be given some kind of medal. Somehow this season with a plethora of injuries, the Jazz kept close to the pack in the Western Conference, and now find themselves atop their division.
Now that Carlos Boozer is back, they've extended their winning streak and are currently in fourth place among Western Conference teams. During the 10 games leading up to Tuesday night's game with the Pacers, the Jazz ranked fourth on both defense and offense.
Utah has roared into March like a lion—and hopes to stay a lion through the rest of the season and playoffs.
But how do they stack up? What are the matchup problems for the Jazz? What have been some of the keys to the Jazz success and failures during the season?
As far as the last question goes, I think there are three keys to Utah's success:
1) Rebounding: The Jazz regularly out-rebound their opponents. With great boarders like Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Paul Milsap, there is not a lot of room for other rebounders under the glass. The Jazz must continue their strong rebounding to advance far in the playoffs.
2) The bench: When Sloan subs in the bench, often the lead increases, or if the Jazz have been struggling, the bench will come in and get the Jazz back in the game. Andrei Kirilenko provides great energy and is a multidimensional talent that anchors the guys off the bench.
3) Deron Williams: A great point guard who can and does take over games in the fourth quarter. As D-Will goes, so go the Jazz.
Another plus is that the return of Boozer has opened up the three-point line a bit more for sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
A key weakness the Jazz will need to address, as they have in their current win streak, is defense. If they can focus on team defense, they have a chance to go far in the playoffs. If they do as they did last year with Lamar Odom—matador defense—figure on an early exit.
One mistake the Jazz make fairly consistently is doubling down on the guy with the ball if near the basket, and leaving a guy wide open at the three-point line.
This strategy works well when the inside guy is LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, but sometimes the Jazz do this even when the inside player is a journeyman and the outside player is a noted three-point threat.
If the Jazz continue to stay in the middle of the playoff pack, likely first round opponents will be Denver, Portland, Houston, or New Orleans. Coach Sloan's plan of attack if anything is consistent—play hard, take good shots, be tough on defense. Considering the likely opponents, I see nothing to indicate a special strategy evolving.
Denver seems to be in a tailspin, the Jazz to all appearances have the Rockets figured out, and Portland is inconsistent. A New Orleans/Utah matchup could be intriguing with a Chris Paul/Deron Williams matchup.
However, when I look at the rest of the starters and both benches, again, the Jazz come out on top. It's not likely the they will meet Dallas in the playoffs, but again, the Jazz have been highly successful against them in recent games.
To worry about
Both teams have proved to be nemeses for the Jazz. For the Spurs, Tony Parker has played like a stud as of late and Tim Duncan is, well, Tim Duncan. Good news for the Jazz is that Manu Ginobili has become more injury prone this year, and the Spurs seem to be waning ever so slightly.
The Lakers provide bad matchups for the Jazz at every position with the possible exception of point guard. The better play of the now-injured Andrew Bynum has made L.A. even stronger.
The Lakers most likely will be the team the Jazz must face if they make it to the Western Conference Finals. Nobody can stop Kobe but the Jazz have at times frustrated him. If Bryant feels the need to be a one man show, however, it will play into Utah's hands.
Look for the Jazz to play tough, no matter what the scenario. They are a team on the rise, no question about it.
Best Likely Scenario
The Jazz meet Houston or Denver in the opening round.
Worst Case Scenario
The Jazz fall to seventh or eighth and play the Lakers or Spurs in the first round.