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The Utah Jazz clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with a 121-99 win over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday.
The Phoenix Suns narrowly edged out the San Antonio Spurs 123-121 earlier in the day to apply pressure to Utah. Thanks to their three-game sweep of the Jazz, the Suns would’ve had the head-to-head tiebreaker if the teams had both finished with the same record.
Instead, the conference may have to go through Salt Lake City.
Heading into their final game, the Jazz ranked first in net rating (8.9), per NBA.com. They’ve owned a suffocating defense and a balanced offense with six players averaging double figures in points.
With the postseason right around the corner, however, Utah faces two big questions.
Donovan Mitchell averaged career highs in points (26.4) and assists (5.2) while shooting a personal-best 38.6 percent from three-point territory. The two-time All-Star was out for the team’s final 16 games with a sprained ankle, though.
The Jazz’s championship hopes hinge largely on Mitchell’s contributions, so it’s imperative he be at 100 percent when the team is back on the court.
Another overarching concern for the franchise is that it hasn’t advanced beyond the conference semifinals under head coach Quin Snyder. Utah’s collective strength has led to a lot of success in the regular season, but having the best player on the floor can occasionally go a long way in the playoffs.
The Jazz were overmatched by the Golden State Warriors in 2017. They couldn’t handle the Chris Paul- and James Harden-led Houston Rockets in 2018 and 2019. Then last year they watched as Jamal Murray went supernova and Nikola Jokic shredded their defense.
For the most part, the roster remains unchanged from a season ago, and that approach has proved to be the right one so far.
Rudy Gobert continues to be one of the NBA’s best defenders and the perfect pick-and-roll partner. Mike Conley is enjoying a return to form that resulted in his first All-Star appearance. Jordan Clarkson is a shoo-in for Sixth Man of the Year, while Joe Ingles would be a solid contender for the award in another year.
Aside from Mitchell, Utah still seems to lack a singular star who can put the offense on his back when things aren’t working on that end of the floor. Isolation ball isn’t the most efficient scheme, but sometimes it’s the necessary approach when coaches have so much time to attack an opponent’s weaknesses and counter the strengths.
Speaking with ESPN’s Tim Bontemps in February, one West scout was won over by the Jazz despite having a roster that isn’t one of the most star-studded in the league.
“You kind of go back to the old Detroit team that won it,” the scout said. “They just had a lot of really good players. I thought Utah needed another star, but I’ve changed on that.”
Without throwing too much disrespect toward Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, the Detroit Pistons were NBA champions in 2004 and reached six straight Eastern Conference Finals because the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
The 2004 Finals were a prime example of that as the Pistons outclassed a Los Angeles Lakers roster that included Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the past-their-prime but still effective veteran duo of Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
If the Jazz reach the NBA Finals, it would be a win not only for the front office but also for non-marquee franchises that struggle to attract the best free agents and trade candidates.
Considering Gobert’s five-year, $205 million extension kicks in next season, failing to get to the conference finals, on the other hand, could be a foreboding sign.