How Do The Utah Jazz Win The Northwest Division?
The Utah Jazz are tied for first in the Northwest Division heading into the final game of 2016. How can the Jazz pull away in 2017 and take the division crown?
The Utah Jazz used a 30-9 fourth quarter explosion to cruise past the Philadelphia 76ers 100-83 on Thursday night. All five starters made major contributions in either points or rebounds. George Hill lead the charge with 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
That same night the Memphis Grizzlies shellacked the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-80 in Memphis. Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was ejected midway through the third quarter for arguing with a referee about a shot clock issue.
The confluence of these two results lead the Jazz and Thunder to end Thursday evening with 20-13 records. This leaves both teams tied for first in the Northwest Division heading into their final games of 2016.
The Jazz held first place in the division not too long ago. A 109-89 win over the Thunder on Dec. 15 put them ahead in the boat race.
However, they relinquished the lead on Dec. 23. The Jazz lost 104-98 to the Toronto Raptors, their third straight loss. The Thunder re-claimed the lead that night with a 117-112 win at the Boston Celtics. Westbrook reeled off 45 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.
With Utah back at the top of the division, although sharing the post, what will it take for them to finally turn the corner? The team has been building slowly since head coach Quin Snyder arrived in 2014. How can this become the year they earn their first division crown since 2008?
The most important key to Utah’s division title hopes will be on defense. Their work on that end of the floor is already renowned across the league. The Jazz allow only 95.5 points per game, fewest in the league.
If you wish to account for Utah’s slow pace (91.0 possessions per 48 minutes), the team allows 102.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s good for sixth in the league.
Oddly enough, Utah doesn’t accomplish this through relentlessly forcing turnovers. Their 11.8 turnovers forced and 6.2 steals per game are both the lowest marks in the NBA in their respective categories.
Instead, the Jazz utilize constricting defense that clogs up offensive motion and leaves opponents scrambling to salvage their half-court sets. Teams are eventually forced to chuck up shots before the shot clock ends. Opponents tend to not make them.
Utah holds opponents to 43.0 percent on field goals, third-best in the league. They do the most damage on two-point field goals. The Jazz hold teams to a league-best 45.7 percent inside the arc.
It helps to have big men Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors waiting for opponents in the paint. Gobert averages 8.8 defensive rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Favors, due to injuries, averages 4.5 defensive boards and 1.1 blocks in only 21.2 minutes per game.
If you extend his line to per 36 minutes – more in line with the 32.0 minutes per game he averaged last year – those numbers bare out to 7.7 defensive boards and 1.9 blocks per game.
As most teams in the league are searching for one rim protector, the Jazz happen to have two.
Dec 21, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) reacts after a foul in the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Sacramento Kings defeated the Utah Jazz 94-93. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
The offense will also have to continue to operate efficiently. The Utah Jazz attempt the fewest field goals per game (77.0) due to their slow pace of play. However, they still manage to shoot 46.7 percent from the field, seventh-best in the league.
Those numbers help Utah average 99.2 points per game, seventh-fewest in the league. However, unlike the Orlando Magic and 76ers that join them in that category, the Jazz do very well per 100 possessions. They average 107.1 points per 100 possessions, eighth-highest in the league.
The three-pointer is a crucial part of the offense. The Jazz average 26.6 three-point attempts per game (12th in the NBA), or 28.7 per 100 possessions (eighth). The shots haven’t had a problem going down, either. The team is shooting 36.8 percent, seventh in the league.
George Hill leads the sharpshooting charge in the 12 games he’s played, shooting 47.5 percent from outside. Starting wings Gordon Hayward (35.6 percent) and Rodney Hood (35.2 percent) are also shooting steady from beyond.
Even more importantly, the bench has also gotten involved. Joe Ingles‘s 47.9 percent from three leads the NBA. Offseason signing Joe Johnson is shooting 39.8 percent from outside. Second-year stretch-four Trey Lyles is shooting 33.9 percent on 3.8 three-point attempts.
The Jazz’s three-point shooting has improved by 1.3 percent since last season. Even if the Jazz regress to the mean as the season continues, they will still be a dangerous force behind the line.
Lastly, continuity will be important the rest of the way. The Jazz have been depleted by injuries despite their ability to power through to a 20-13 record.
Alec Burks and Dante Exum are the two players currently on the injured list. Burks is recovering from knee surgery, and has only played three games in the calendar year of 2016. Exum just fell to left knee tendinitis. Both could return some time in January.
George Hill and Derrick Favors recently returned from major injuries of their own. Favors missed 13 games with a bruised left knee. He has returned and held on a minutes restriction over the last eight games.
Nov 12, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) looks to pass the ball against the Miami Heat during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Hill has been figuratively snake-bitten over the first 33 games of the season. He missed eight games in November with a sprained right thumb. He returned for four games before spraining his left big toe and missing 12 games. Hill logged only his 12th game of the season in his triumphant return against the 76ers.
Thursday’s game marked only the second time all season that the full starting lineup (Hill, Hood, Hayward, Favors, Gobert) was able to play together. The other instance was a 114-109 win at the New York Knicks. The Jazz are now 2-0 with that starting lineup.
Utah is a team full of talented players, but they can never seem to keep everyone healthy at once. If the Jazz have everyone available by January, their backcourt depth will make them hard to compete with.
With the Thunder living and dying with every Westbrook triple-double and the Trail Blazers struggling mightily on defense, the Jazz are in a good position to take the Northwest Division.
In order to keep their pace, the Jazz will have to remain stringent on defense and efficient on offense. But the most important thing for them is to remain healthy.
The combination of those three things could help the Jazz move closer to becoming a true Western Conference contender.
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