Fear The Jazz (Under Certain Conditions)
Even as a staunch skeptic of the Utah Jazz' legitimacy as a title contender, twelve wins in a row is twelve wins in a row. The Jazz definitely looked like they'd turned the corner and were putting all the pieces together that Ziller so eloquently laid out when he warned us all of the coming Jazzocalypse.
But then this weekend came.
Actually, the trouble started last Wednesday. First off was a streakbuster against Atlanta. Okay, not that explainable as far as losses go, but it was a back-to-back on the road. And Atlanta features a similar set of young talent balanced by veteran leadership. Hey, no big deal, back in the saddle, right?
Next up was Miami on Saturday. Hey, the Heat are feisty, but come on, the Jazz are a title contender! Surely they'll be able to overrun the Heat! And indeed, the Jazz were up by seven in the fourth quarter! To the Conference Final breach, dear friends!
Oh, wait, hold on, Dwyane Wade lives and breathes.
The Jazz gave up a seven-point lead in 55 seconds, then an eight-point lead in overtime. Throw in Dwyane Wade dropping his line we talked about earlier? You've got an eleven-point win for the Heat in triple overtime.
Okay, we're okay. Keep breathing. Be calm and carry on, and whatnot.
Long road trip, yes, and Orlando is a pretty decent playoff team. But this is what shows the kind of team you are, right? The ability to bounce back from tough losses, finish road trips strong, and take down the big boys?
Eighteen-point loss to Orlando. The phrase "Don't stand on the tracks when the team with a legitimate frontcourt that likes to actually play inside is coming through" springs to mind.
So instead of coasting in the top four spot, closing in on San Antonio for the No. 2 seed, the Jazz find themselves back where they started. In the seventh spot, and among several teams who seem to also be peaking, and without homecourt advantage, with a month to go before the playoffs.
No big deal. This team knows where it's going, it knows how to respond. And a losing streak at the end of a road trip is no reason to bury the team. Let's talk good news, bad news.
Good news: They are a game and a half back of Houston for the three seed. They are 28-6 at home, which is tied for second best in the conference. They're finally healthy. They have the experience to go deep in the playoffs even if they don't get a top seed (especially if they get to play Houston). They end the season with their last three home games against the Timberwolves, Clippers, and Clippers, who they will beat mercilessly until they cry for their parents or guardian figures. Hooray!
The Bad News: They play eight of their last fifteen games on the road. They have yet to maintain any level of consistency with all of their players in the rotation. They still suffer from the same problems they've have for the last several years, which includes the fact that their starting center likes to hang out on the perimeter. And then there's this delicious nugget.
Pop quiz. How many games have the Jazz won on the road against teams with a winning record?
Here's a hint. It's one more than me, Bill Cosby, and Carrot Top have won.
For those of you on acid, the answer is one. One game.
The reality is that the Jazz are still likely the third-best team in the West. They're only a game back of Denver for the division and should be considered favorites against anyone but LA and San Antonio. However, the gap between the Jazz and those two teams is akin to a gulf. Or a canyon. Or whatever space is filled in between teams that lose seven points in 55 seconds to teams featuring young guys like Daequan Cook and Mario Chalmers making big plays. I think it might be a googleplex, but I'm not a scientist.
The Jazz are a good team. Maybe even a borderline great team. But they have a ways to go to prove they're ready to contend, and there's not much time left in the season for them to get there.