SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz have the best record in the NBA and have only lost one out of the last 12 games. They became the quickest team to hit 500 3-pointers in a season (31 games) and have two All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
The second half of the NBA schedule was revealed Wednesday, and the Jazz have the easiest second-half schedule based on opponents’ win percentage. All signs point to the Jazz finishing first in the Western Conference. Still, there are fans and analysts, like Shaquille O’Neal, who continue to doubt the Jazz have what it takes to bring the first championship to the franchise.
What could end up being a preview of the Western Conference finals fell flat Wednesday night with the Los Angeles Lakers failing to contain Gobert in the paint and were left scrambling to defend the Jazz’s deadly 3-point shooting.
The Jazz throttled the defending champions with 4,912 fans in attendance. The Lakers have now lost four straight games with Anthony Davis still out due to a calf strain.
“Utah has been playing extremely well this year,” James said, heading into the game. “They’ve been moving the ball, sharing the ball — that ball is popping.”
The Jazz lead the NBA in 3-pointers made per game at 16.8 and had a franchise-record 28 threes Monday night vs. the Charlotte Hornets.
The long-range shots kept falling vs. the Lakers as the Jazz notched their 11th game this season with 20 or more 3-point field goals (20-for-45), already tied for the fourth most in a single season in NBA history. A friendly reminder we’re only 32 games into the season.
In January, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he saw similarities between this Jazz team and the Warriors team with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green three years ago.
“They’re trying to win a championship right now, and I think they’re capable of doing so,” Kerr said. “They’re where we were three, four years ago.”
Gobert and Mitchell both signed long-term contracts in the offseason and worked out their chemistry issues after dealing with some drama heading into the NBA bubble last season. A healthy Mike Conley is arguably having his best season, averaging 16.3 points, 5.7 assists and shooting 42% from 3-point range with some suggesting he should have been named an All-Star.
The role players who surround those three aren’t too bad either. Georges Niang was a perfect 7-for-7 from the 3-point line coming off the bench in the win over Charlotte, and Jordan Clarkson — a contender for Sixth Man of the Year — had 18 points off the bench in the win over the Lakers. The Jazz have six players averaging 38% or better from 3-point range with Joe Ingles making 31 threes in the month of February.
It’s hard to bet against teams like the Lakers with James and Davis and the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George come playoff time. The biggest question: Will this Jazz team have enough to defeat either team in a seven-game series?
The wounds are still fresh after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs last season, but bringing back Derrick Favors has added some relief for Gobert in the frontcourt and Bojan Bogdanovic is back after missing the playoffs last season with a wrist injury.
“We don’t want to be the best team in February, we want to be the best team in July,” Mitchell said after a win against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this month.
The Jazz had a comfortable 26-point lead going into the fourth quarter and outscored the Lakers by 25 points in the second and third quarters. It is the 20th time this season the Jazz had led by 20 or more points. Again, they have played only 32 games.
“There’s still a lot of games left to be played, but seeing how deep this Utah team is, I think they have all the tools to be there in the end,” one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports.
The Utah Jazz are the real deal. The ball movement on offense is seamless, and the way the Jazz rotate on defense, it makes it difficult for teams to get the shots they want.
“We came into this game and understood that LeBron was still over there but there was going to be other guys that were going to be more aggressive. At the end of the day, everyone’s coming for us now,” Mitchell said, following the win Wednesday night. “We can’t let our foot off the gas and just have to keep this momentum and build from it.”
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