MIAMI — When the Utah Jazz (6-4) invade AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday night, they will be looking to beat the Miami Heat (2-5) and put an exclamation point on what has so far been an excellent road trip.
When the Jazz left home a little more than a week ago, they were a .500 team at 3-3. But they have since gone 3-1, including an 87-74 win over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.
Saturday's game will be Utah's fifth in seven nights.
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“You have to be mentally tough,” Jazz shooting guard Rodney Hood told the media. “This is the end of the trip. We have to be smart and focused.”
An interesting aspect of this winning road trip is that most of it has been accomplished without starting point guard George Hill, who is second on the team in scoring (20.4) and first in assists (5.0).
Hill has missed the past three games due to a sprained right thumb, and the 30-year-old veteran was the team's key offseason acquisition.
Dante Exum, a 6-6 Australian and the No. 5 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, has been starting in Hill's place, although his numbers this season are modest — 6.3 points, 1.7 assists.
Fortunately for the Jazz, 6-8 small forward Gordon Hayward just keeps getting better — he has led Utah in scoring in each of the past three years. This season, he is leading again, averaging 25.7 points.
Hood, a 6-6 former Duke star, is also improving. He averaged 8.5 points as a rookie, 14.5 points last season and is at 17.9 this year. Derrick Favors (10.6 points, 7.6 rebounds) is a solid veteran at power forward and is capable of more — he averaged 16.4 points last season.
Rounding out the Utah starting lineup is 7-1 French center Rudy Gobert, who is nearly averaging a double-double — 9.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks.
Gobert, who will be a restricted free agent after this season, should have an interesting matchup on Saturday against Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who got paid this past summer.
Whiteside, who signed a four-year, $98 million extension with Miami, is averaging 17.9 points and 14.7 rebounds — monster numbers.
Still, Whiteside's heroics are not enough for the Heat, who are on a three-game losing streak. The skid could have been six in a row had Miami not escaped with an overtime win over the Sacramento Kings.
Whiteside stated what is pretty obvious, that there has been a talent drain on the Heat and that losing Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh off of last season's team has hurt him in particular.
“With D-Wade, I never had to work on it,” said Whiteside, explaining that his former teammate would often feed him lobs that led to easy dunks. “He just saw it.”
Whiteside is still putting up impressive numbers — he had 20 points and a season-high 20 rebounds on Thursday against the Chicago Bulls. But the lob dunks aren't there as much, and Miami lacks the perimeter shooting to make teams pay for sagging and doubling on Whiteside.
“If teams collapse on Hassan, we have to be ready to make a play,” said Miami's Justise Winslow, who could be emerging as a point forward. “We would love to get Hassan lobs. But we have to read the defense and take what they give us. We can't force.”
Perhaps Saturday is the night the Heat break out of their slump. After all, the Jazz, who have former Heat forward Joe Johnson as part of their bench brigade, have talked openly about fatigue setting in at the end of this trip.
“We've played a lot of games,” Hayward said. “It feels like we've been on the road for quite a while now.”