SALT LAKE CITY — An incredible turnaround is complete.
The Utah Jazz clinched an NBA playoff spot with two regular-season games left after beating the Los Angeles Lakers 112-97 on Sunday. It caps an unforeseen rise after the Jazz (47-33) were nine games below .500 in mid-January with a 19-28 record.
“What this group of guys has done — as far as being nine games below .500 and dealing with a lot of adversity and change — I’m really proud of their effort over the course of the season,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told reporters on Sunday.
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Now the question remaining is how far can Utah rise?
The Jazz still have plenty at stake when they host Golden State on Tuesday night. Not only can Utah claim the season series with the Warriors with another victory, they can keep hopes for claiming the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference alive. Portland currently leads the Jazz by a game in the race for that seed and the two division rivals face off on Wednesday.
In a real sense, every game still counts for Utah. And the Jazz don’t want to coast into the postseason.
“We want to stay right where we are at, if not, keep going higher,” Donovan Mitchell told reporters on Thursday. “We want to keep working and keep doing what we’ve been doing. If we keep playing like this we’ll be in good shape.”
Since Rudy Gobert returned to the lineup in January after missing 26 games with knee injuries, Utah has turned into a tough customer on both ends of the court. The Jazz rank 13th in the NBA in offensive efficiency (108.5) and lead the league in defensive efficiency (97.9) since mid-January.
Mitchell, who tallied 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists against the Lakers, has led the way on offense. He is just the fifth NBA rookie to lead his team to the playoffs as the team’s leading scorer, joining Carmelo Anthony (Denver, 2003-04), David Robinson (San Antonio, 1989-90), Chuck Person (Indiana, 1986-87) and Michael Jordan (Chicago, 1984-85).
No one needs to remind Golden State how dangerous the Jazz have become as the regular season winds down. The Warriors (58-23) have suffered two straight lopsided losses to Utah and they fell 129-99 to the Jazz in their other visit to Salt Lake City on Jan. 27.
Golden State has limped a bit into the postseason compared to previous years. The Warriors snapped a two-game losing streak with a 117-100 win over Phoenix on Sunday behind 34 points from Klay Thompson. Overall, Golden State has lost nine of its last 16 games and defense has been a primary factor behind the slump.
The Warriors allowed 126 points in back-to-back losses to Indiana and New Orleans. Both opponents lit up Golden State from the field. The Pelicans shot 56 percent, while the Pacers shot 54 percent — including 52 percent from 3-point range.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr publicly criticized his team’s defensive effort after the loss to Indiana and reiterated on Sunday that defense needs to be an area of focus and improvement heading into the playoffs.
“My main message is we’ve got to defend,” Kerr told reporters before Sunday’s win over the Suns. “We’ve got to get back to being a top-five defensive team. I probably chose my words poorly in Indianapolis. When I said they didn’t care, that didn’t mean that they didn’t ‘care.’ What that meant to me was they didn’t box out. They didn’t get in the passing lanes. They didn’t compete at a high level.”
Defense has been questionable in Golden State’s last two losses against Utah.
In January’s loss to the Jazz, for example, Utah shot 50 percent from 3-point range and 58 percent from the field overall. All five Jazz starters have averaged double figures in their last two games against the Warriors — with Mitchell leading the way at 20.5 points to go with 5.0 assists and 3.0 steals.