I don’t think I’m alone when I say the 2011-2012 (or just 2012) season is one of the most bizarre, jaw-dropping and intense seasons to come around in quite some time.
Or maybe I’m just too wrapped up with the Jazz to see the inevitable – a Finals showdown featuring San Antonio and Miami (for the record, I sincerely hope this prediction doesn’t come to pass, and it might not if Boston continues to thrive). In any case, the big storyline for this season (at least in Utah and some parts of Idaho) remains whether or not the Jazz will make the playoffs.
Comparisons to the 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 seasons surely deserve merit, a time when (after Stockton’s and Malone’s sudden departure) Utah likewise struggled to make the post-season. In 2004, Utah missed the playoffs by a single game to, you guessed it, Denver. That Utah team finished the season 42-40 (on par with Utah’s current, slightly-above .500 record). In 2006, Utah missed the playoffs by three games, mostly due to injuries (and an overall lack of heart, if you ask me).
Flash forward some 12 years later and Utah now stands on the brink of a similar demise. They are so damned close to the post-season it’s almost sickening to think about. And once again, the main culprit seems to fall on injuries – to Bell, Howard, Miles, Evans, Watson, and now (according to the Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Milsap (I think even our cheerleaders are injured). The injury bug hit Utah hard at the worst possible instance. And now the basketball gods see fit to tease us by taking down key players to teams Utah needs to beat, namely Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge (out for the season) and Dallas’ Lamar Odom (gone for the season). The Jazz must feel like Wesley in the original Saw chained to a pipe with everything needed to survive seemingly just out of reach … talk about frustrating.
I’m not saying Utah can’t make the post season, as they’ve found numerous ways to win games thanks to potent play from Devin Harris and Gordy, who each scored big in key games this past week, but only that the road is going to feature a lot of bumps along the way. I think Utah carries the heart and tenacity to slide into the post-season, but they need some luck heading down the most crucial stretch of the season – and so far, that luck has only appeared in spades.
As mentioned before, playing against a depleted Portland team certainly helps (we play them twice by the way), as do games against the up-and-down Mavs and Magic at Energy Solutions Arena. In truth, only two games scare the crap out of me during these next few weeks: Memphis (because the game takes place on the road) and Phoenix (because, well, the Jazz have no answer for Steve Nash). The Hornets shouldn’t be a problem tomorrow – so that means the Jazz could realistically finish this last stretch 5-2. That’s not a BS assessment either, not the way Utah is playing right now – like a team unleashed, Hell-bent on making the post-season whether or not doing so kills them. Also consider that only one back-to-back remains – against New Orleans and Memphis this weekend – and you have the best possible scenario for a team riddled with cuts and bruises.
Also take into account Gordon Hayward’s amazing ability to carry the team on his back. Last night in Houston, the boy dropped 29 points and six assists. His performance was so good, it forced me to legally change my daughter’s name to Gordona the Great (the wife doesn’t know). How good are the Jazz when they run their offense through their wings? Really good. Instead of halting the offense with isolation plays to Big Al, Utah thrived in the open court and beat the Rockets off the dribble. As such, Milsap, Carroll and Favors thrived; while Big Al did the dirty work and collected eight big rebounds.
The Houston match-up was perhaps the most terrifying (for me at least) of the season. I didn’t expect the Jazz to win, let alone waltz in and secure a near-blowout victory (they led by 18 at one point in the third quarter). I’m sure many Houston fans angrily wrote about DeMarre Carroll’s deserving of the Unknown Player Who Typically Sucks but Kicked Our Butts Tonight Award – and they’d be right, if the man actually sucked. Carroll’s play reminds me of Wesley Matthews, not necessarily in form (I remember Matthews notching something like 20 points a game whenever he started), but in energy, heart and downright awesomeness. Say what you will about Jazz management, but they know how to find the high energy guys (which makes me curious to see “sharpshooter” Blake Ahearn).
And that’s the key right there, my friends: whether or not Utah can sustain this energy for the remaining seven games.
Here comes the negative bug: Eventually our boys will get tired, right? And even if they do manage to scrape their way into the playoffs, how capable will a severely lacking Jazz squad be against the likes of San Antonio or OKC?
Answer: Not much, but I’m willing to bet Milsap’s injury won’t keep him from play; and since Miles could possibly be ready to hit the court sometime next week, why worry? Watson is gone, but Jamaal Tinsley’s current play cancels out all need to for a third PG; and Evans and Bell weren’t exactly posting solid numbers on a nightly basis, so losing them doesn’t exactly hurt.
Besides, from what I hear, Ahearn can shoot the ball … plus he’s playing for something special – his newborn kid, and a roster spot.
The Jazz probably won’t win the first round (should they get there), but who cares?
I sure don’t.
In any case, since I haven’t done one for quite a while, here’s a quick poll for you: