Despite the Northwest Division title appearing to be out of reach just a couple of days ago, things have changed that lead me to believe that the Utah Jazz have a legitimate shot of overtaking the Denver Nuggets and landing a 2 or 3 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.
On Friday night, the Jazz were able to hold off the New Orleans Hornets even though they were without AK47 and Mehmet Okur. They got brilliant performances from all of their starters, and the ball was spread around really nicely so that everybody had a chance to get involved. In fact, their lowest scoring starter was CJ Miles who had a very respectable 14 points.
Deron Williams had another terrific offensive performance en route to a 27 point and 16 assist night. Although he ran the Jazz offense very well, he once again showed trouble guarding a young, quick point guard, as Darren Collison scored 28 points and dished out 7 assists. I can’t stress it enough, but if Williams can’t find a way to use his relatively big frame to push other diminutive point guards around, it is going to bite the Jazz in the behind. But overall, I have to say a positive output by D-Will.
One guy who really had me excited was Wesley Matthews, who had 20 points on 8-11 shooting. Matthews had been off for a while, especially since he had the slight knee injury a few weeks ago. However, on Friday night he looked like the Wesley Matthews that was becoming a key component to this team’s success about a month ago. To see him have that kind of performance was very encouraging, as I think he can be an important factor come playoff time. Having him play up to his potential in the postseason will be a huge boost for this team because of all of the other established weapons that they have. If they can get a real contribution out of their undrafted rookie, it can be the difference between a deep playoff run and a disappointing early exit.
All in all the game against the Hornets was a game that the Jazz could have very easily lost. Being down two starters on the road against a young, loose team with nothing to lose has “trap game” written all over it. But the Jazz stayed focused on the task at hand, and they took care of business as they were supposed to. To me, seeing them step up in the big spot like they did shows me a maturity level that this team did not have in season’s past. It looks like the Jazz are finally becoming the team that everybody thought they were capable of being.
In addition to Utah’s humongous win in The Big Easy, the Denver Nuggets suffered a loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night that was equally as big for the Jazz. With the return of Kenyon Martin, plus the fact that the Nuggets were playing at home, Denver had all of the momentum they needed to win the game. Yet, the Spurs just went out early, and they straight out took that game. I didn’t see the same fervor from Denver that I had seen against the Lakers and the Thunder earlier in the week, and you could just tell that the Spurs wanted the game more. Great! You won’t see me complaining about it.
Speaking of the Spurs, I think that this is the team that would pose the biggest threat to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. The Spurs, like the Lakers, have had their share of success, and they know what it takes to win during the postseason. Despite the fact that Richard Jefferson’s addition to the team didn’t improve them as much as people projected in the regular season, all of that doesn’t matter once the playoffs start. Jefferson has had a full season to adjust to the Spurs, and the Spurs have had a full season to adjust to him. With that being said, the Spurs might be as dangerous in the playoffs as people expected all along. That could spell trouble for not only the Lakers, but the rest of the league as well. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!
Now with just 2 games remaining in the regular season, if the Jazz want to get at least a 3-seed (win the Northwest Division title), then they will need to finish 1 game better than the Nuggets over the last 2. The Nuggets will be playing the Grizzlies and the Suns (our best hope), and the Jazz will be playing the Warriors and the Suns.
These last 2 games are sure to be intense, fun basketball games that the fans will definitely enjoy. Unless, of course, the Jazz stumble and hand-deliver the division title to the Nuggets.
Please, Utah. Anything but that.