Jazz Clinch Postseason Berth; Latest 2021 NBA Playoff Picture, Standings

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistApril 25, 2021

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) celebrates with Rudy Gobert (27) after leaving the game during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

The Utah Jazz punched their ticket to the 2021 NBA playoffs, securing their fifth straight trip to the postseason.

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The Jazz own the NBA's best record (44-16) and sit two games above the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers for first place in the Western Conference. They also sit first in net rating (8.9), per NBA.com.

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Eastern Conference

Western Conference

*Teams seeded seventh through 10th qualify for the playoffs through the play-in tournament

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Utah lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2019 and 2020, last year throwing away a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets. With Donovan Mitchell eligible for a new deal and Rudy Gobert entering the last year of his contract, the Jazz looked like they might be headed for a crossroads.

Instead, the front office doubled down.

Mitchell got a five-year, $163 million extension last November, and Gobert received a five-year, $205 million extension the following month. The size of Gobert's pay raise was particularly surprising considering he doesn't fit the archetype of a center you'd give max money.

So far, continuing to build around Mitchell and Gobert has worked out excellently.

More so than Mitchell and Gobert, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson might hold the key to Utah winning its first championship.

Mitchell is a dynamic scorer who's averaging 27.3 points on 43.2 percent shooting through 23 playoff appearances. He had two 50-point outings last postseason, which is impressive even when factoring in the inflated scoring during the NBA bubble run.

But the Jazz have had to lean far too much on the two-time All-Star to initiate the offense. Among players who logged at least 200 minutes, Mitchell's 33.6 percent usage rate is fourth-highest over the last three postseasons, per Stathead.

Utah acquired Conley to help ease the burden on Mitchell, but he struggled in his first season with the team. This year, on the other hand, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.0 assists while hitting a career-high 40.9 percent of hiss three-pointers.

Clarkson, meanwhile, is the runaway favorite for Sixth Man of the Year. He's averaging 17.5 points in 26.0 minutes per game.

To this point, the Jazz have been the NBA's top team. Winning in the regular season isn't totally the same thing as winning in the playoffs, though. For three straight years, the team that finished with the best record was unable to capture a championship.

Quin Snyder's squad has done everything it can to silence the skeptics in 2020-21. Until this core can navigate its way past the conference semifinals, a level of doubt will remain.