Pop quiz, hotshot: who’s got the longest winning streak in the NBA? Nope, it’s not James Harden, Chris Paul and the hard-charging Houston Rockets. (They’re second, with 10 straight victories.) Nor is it Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. (They’re third, with seventh in a row.) No, the hottest team in the NBA resides on the Wasatch Front.
The Utah Jazz — a team that seemed unlikely to compete after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward and starting point guard George Hill in free agency, and that bounced back from an injury to literal centerpiece Rudy Gobert with a hot streak only to lose 15 of their next 20 — have found their form again. Quin Snyder’s club entered the All-Star break having ripped off 11 in a row.
Before leading wire-to-wire in a pre-break win over the Phoenix Suns, the Jazz reached double figures in thrilling fashion with a come-from-behind 101-99 victory over the visiting San Antonio Spurs, capped by a damn good closing kick from rookie Donovan Mitchell:
Donovan Mitchell doing it all in crunch time pic.twitter.com/Y674VDsm7n
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 13, 2018
After struggling with his shot and scuffling through three quarters, the Louisville product turned it on late. Mitchell scored 13 of his 25 points in the fourth as the Jazz erased a 13-point San Antonio lead in just under nine minutes, punctuating the roaring comeback by picking Kyle Anderson’s pocket for a driving layup to give the Jazz a 98-97 lead with 59 ticks left. And after the Spurs went back in front on a pair of Anderson free throws, the 21-year-old dribbled into the frontcourt, took a high screen from Derrick Favors, drove right at a backpedaling Pau Gasol and calmly pulled up for an elbow jumper that splashed through to put Utah back on top with 38.2 seconds remaining.
A couple of defensive stops later — thanks to dogged perimeter work from Royce O’Neale, Utah’s “other” rookie, an undrafted swingman out of Baylor-by-way-of-Spain whose steady two-way play might have helped punch Rodney Hood’s ticket out of Salt Lake City — and the Jazz had their 10th straight W, putting them back over .500 for the first time since Dec. 5.
It wasn’t a beautiful game. Mitchell finished 9-for-28 from the field, and Utah shot just 42 percent as a team. It also carries the caveat of coming against a Spurs team without not only still-injured superstar Kawhi Leonard and top reserve Rudy Gay, but also All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who was sidelined through the All-Star break as he received treatment on “his chronically sore right knee.”
But you can only play the team that’s in front of you, and on the second night of a back-to-back after winning in Portland, the Jazz managed to battle through what looked to be dead legs, without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, to author a 13-point comeback and snatch victory from the jaws of what seemed like certain defeat:
Down by 12 with 8:36 left in the 4th quarter, the Jazz had a 7% win expectancy, per @inpredict. They mounted an incredible comeback to win their 10th straight — on a back-to-back, no less. https://t.co/OzYBcd6YCc pic.twitter.com/HUJqO4nluC
— Positive Residual (@presidual) February 13, 2018
The Spurs led the Jazz 83-70 in the 4th quarter. Entering the night, they were 775-3 under Gregg Popovich when leading by 13+ points in the 4th quarter.
They are now 775-4.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 13, 2018
It was the moment in miniature, a run distilled. Facing defeat, the combination of aggressive defense, flashes of brilliance from Mitchell, timely play from dependable veterans (the Joe Ingles-Derrick Favors pick-and-roll, which carved the Spurs up down the stretch) and smart decision-making by Snyder (leaving Gobert on the bench for the final six-plus minutes, with the Stifle Tower’s blessing, and continuing to ride the Favors-at-center lineup that fueled the game-winning burst) changed the Jazz’s fortunes. Eleven wins in three weeks have had the same effect on Utah’s postseason outlook.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to advanced statistical projection systems. But by FiveThirtyEight’s reckoning, only the Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have a higher likelihood than the Jazz of cracking the top eight among Western teams … despite the fact that Utah resumes play Friday in 10th place in the varsity conference. (For what it’s worth, Basketball-Reference.com’s playoff probability report pegs Utah’s odds of making the postseason at 64.8 percent, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index puts it at 71.4 percent.)
By the same token, though, Utah’s just thre games out of fifth in the tightly packed West. The team directly above the Jazz in the standings, the Los Angeles Clippers, is continuing to figure out its new identity following the trade of Blake Griffin. The team above them, the New Orleans Pelicans, won’t have All-Star DeMarcus Cousins back this season, and is still working to integrate new power forward Nikola Mirotic.
The sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets have been red-hot offensively, and could get a boost from the post-All-Star return of Paul Millsap … unless his reintroduction to the lineup causes Mike Malone’s team to hit some speed bumps in the road to the postseason. The seventh-place Portland Trail Blazers have one of the highest-scoring backcourts in the league and a top-10 defense, but they can be had; in fact, the Jazz just had them, decisively, in Oregon. And the No. 5 Thunder can look like world-beaters one moment and worrisome the next. Outside of Golden State and Houston finishing 1-2 in some order, nothing in the West seems set in stone. So why not Utah?
The Jazz have, by several measurements, played one of the NBA’s toughest schedules to date, and by comparison have one of its easier slates down the stretch. Fourteen of Utah’s 24 remaining games will come in the friendly confines of Vivint Smart Home Arena, where the Jazz are 18-9 and outscoring opponents by a very healthy 6.8 points per 100 possessions. Twelve of the 24 will come against teams currently under .500, including nine against circling-the-drain squads — Phoenix, Dallas, Sacramento, Orlando, Memphis, Atlanta — playing for nothing but the No. 1 pick. There’s an opportunity for the Jazz to make hay … provided what they’ve shown in the run-up to the All-Star break can sustain as winter turns to spring. (And provided they can improve upon what has been an iffy record against losing teams.)
Make no mistake: Utah’s been absolutely dynamite over these past 11 games. Snyder’s flowing offense has roasted opposing defenses to the tune of 112.3 points per 100 possessions, sixth-best in the NBA in this stretch. Before being sidelined by a hip injury, Rubio had found the shooting stroke (53 percent from the floor on 12.5 attempts per game, 54.2 percent from 3-point range on three tries a night) to unlock his do-everything-else playmaking game. Ingles (53.4 percent from the field, 54.2 percent from deep on 6.5 long balls a game) keeps scorching the net from all over the court.
Gobert and Favors have remained menacing finishers, glass-cleaners and interior deterrents. O’Neale and Jae Crowder have added wing versatility, with the new addition looking rejuvenated by his exit from Cleveland and the opportunity to play a defined role within a set system again. The pieces fit together, especially on defense, where Utah has allowed a microscopic 97.7 points-per-100, the NBA’s No. 1 mark during the winning streak.
Fueling it all is Mitchell, the 13th pick in last June’s draft, whose combination of power, grace, size and quickness calls to mind a young Dwyane Wade, and whose ability to shoulder the scoring load as Utah makes its push for postseason contention has forced Ben Simmons into a two-horse race for Rookie of the Year honors.
Yeah, Mitchell needed 28 shots to score his 25 points against the Spurs, and 24 to score his 24 against the Suns. But as our former Fearless Leader Kelly Dwyer notes, a Utah team light on natural shot creators — and, with Rubio sitting, even lighter on facilitation — needed someone to put the ball on the rim and make something happen. Mitchell has done it all year and just keeps doing it, continuing to take advantage of the opportunity to step into the void created by the exits of Hayward and Hill (and now Hood and Joe Johnson) by attacking with abandon when the Jazz need it, playing with patience when they don’t, and digging in on the defensive end either way.
“I think the biggest thing is having confidence in myself,” Mitchell recently told Sports Illustrated’s Rohan Nadkarni. “If you know people around me, even in college, I was confident, but the possible thought of making it to the NBA was crazy […] My teammates allow me to give my input — in the NBA, it’s not normal for rookies to have this kind of freedom. My teammates have been so receptive, and without that, it would be a lot harder.”
Without Mitchell, everything would be a lot harder for the Jazz. The rookie’s beyond-his-years poise and adaptability, young legs, confidence and commitment to playing both ends have helped breathe new life into a season that looked dead in the water in July, November and January. Utah’s winning streak won’t last forever, but what the Jazz have found along the way may very well still carry them into the playoffs this spring — and, in years to come, maybe even farther.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –