How the Utah Jazz became the team nobody in the West playoffs wants to face

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LOS ANGELES — On Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500 and five games out of the playoffs, they were without injured big man Rudy Gobert, not to mention the Jazz were still trying to figure out their offense in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s summer departure. A lot of teams would have mentally folded at that point (if management didn’t decide for them to tank and focus on getting a high draft pick).

Since then the Jazz are 31-7, and their defense — anchored by likely Defensive Player of the Year Gobert — is allowing less than a point per possession.

That run has vaulted them into the playoffs, and with a win Wednesday night in Portland, the No. 3 seed.

Ask around other top teams in the West about what teams they’d like to avoid in the first round and Utah’s name is quick to come up — because of that defense. Even the teams sure they could knock off Utah know it would be a physical series against a resilient team that will not quit. Utah will enter the playoffs as anywhere from the three to five seed and there is no team in the West thinking the Jazz would be an easy out.

Which is amazing to say coming off a weird season for the Jazz.

“Weird is an understatement,” Utah’s coach Quin Snyder said. “Starting with the uncertainty around what our team would look like (without Hayward), aside from the standpoint we knew we wanted to be grounded defensively. Then we lost Rudy (Gobert, to two different knee injuries). It’s harder to do that without him….

Then you get into December where you know you’ve got the toughest schedule of any month for any team in the league. Then around December 18 [Note: it was Dec. 15 when Gobert suffered a second knee injury], you can forget that because you’re struggling without Rudy. We had a lot of challenges. There was a point that this group, the guys that are here, continued not to think about it and do the best with what we have. It started out with just maintaining our competitive spirit and being unselfish, and then see where it goes.”

It went to the playoffs.

“You’ve seen teams that lose their star player… they fall back to a lottery team. They fall to being a team where we don’t expect much,” Jazz star rookie Donovan Mitchell said of Utah’s attitude coming into camp without Gordon. “We never had that mindset, you didn’t feel that. Me, coming in, it wasn’t talked about, it just felt like ‘we’re here to play.’ People overlooked the fact that ya, we lost our main scoring option, but we still had Rudy, and him being defensive player of the year.”

Two things defined this Jazz season, and it’s those two things that make them a real playoff threat: their defense and rookie Donovan Mitchell.

Since Gobert’s Jan. 19 return from a second knee injury, Utah has allowed just 97.4 points per 100 possessions defensively — far and away the best in the league (second in that stretch is Philadelphia at 101.4). With Gobert in the lineup, the Jazz are the best defensive rebounding team in the league — it helps to have Derrick Favors on the front line with Gobert for that — and the Jazz shut down easy buckets for the other team, allowing just 9.8 fast break points per game (best in the NBA). For the season (which includes the 26 games without Gobert) Utah allows the fifth lowest percentage of opponent shots at the rim — with many of those drives becoming pull-ups because of Gobert’s presence inside had players not wanting to challenge him. Plus, because they have Gobert as a backstop, Utah perimeter defenders can be aggressive chasing guys off the three-point line — Utah allowed the fourth fewest percent of opponent shots from three (stats via cleaning the glass).

With Gobert back healthy and anchoring that defense, Utah had THE defining stretch of their season — from January 24 through Valentine’s Day Feb. 14 the Jazz did not lose. It was 11 straight wins, vaulting them back up into the playoff picture.

“After the win streak we expected to win,” Mitchell said. “We saw what we can do, so why not continue it? A lot of teams get the win streak and are like ‘we have it’ and put it in their back pocket and save it for later. We were like ‘let’s do this for the rest of the year.’ Why not continue to win and play the way we have been?”

They did — from March 2-17 Utah rattled off another nine straight wins.

While the lockdown defense anchored this team and put them in position to win games, they still needed to score. That’s where rookie Donovan Mitchell came in.

Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to a serious Rookie of the Year candidate averaging 20.5 points per night as the focal point of Utah’s offense.

When the season tipped off, Mitchell looked like a lot of other rookie guards, overwhelmed by the speed and athleticism of the NBA game — in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. However, Mitchell is an avid watcher of film and he caught on fast. By December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1 (those numbers came back to earth a little as defenses adjusted to him, but his efficiency has remained strong).

“When the season started it really took off real quick for me, and it took seven or eight games to catch up (to the speed)…” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “Then this season, just taking it game-by-game, getting a better understanding of what they needed from me, how to approach games, how to approach certain matchups, how to approach reads and coverages.”

Snyder saw what he had in Mitchell and by the second month of the season put the ball in his hands — but didn’t let up on the rookie.

“He’s been stern,” Mitchell said of Snyder. “He’s been real firm on how he wants me to develop. He says he’s going to let me make mistakes, but he’s going to let me know…. The way he’s coaching me, I don’t think I can make a lot of mistakes most rookies make. That’s my mindset. I don’t look at myself as a rookie anymore, and just being able to understand that this is a lot different than October. He’s been great, he’s been very understanding. He tells me he trusts me all the time. So you have that backing.”

It’s not October anymore — it’s about to be the playoffs. The intensity of play is about to go up a couple more notches.

“Now (in the playoffs), teams have three or four days to scout you,” Mitchell said. “They play you over and over and over again, so shot you have there in Game 1 is not going to be there in Game 2, the same shot you take in Game 2 is not going to be there in Game 3 and you’re going to have to understand that, you’re going to have to find different ways to get involved, whether it’s offensively or defensively, find other ways to get guys open, and to find the right open guys because now they have so much film to watch from the season… just being able to take it step by step and be able to read and study film and where the openings are.”

Mitchell still is a relentless attacker on offense — he averaged 13.2 drives per game, 11th most in the league, and since the All-Star break he averages the eighth most drives per game. He shoots and efficient 51 percent on those, and more importantly, he’s becoming a better passer on those plays, finding spot-up specialist Joe Ingles or other Jazz shooters for assists on 9.9 percent of them.

“Earlier in the season, a lot of those passes I would probably take to the rim or throw up a crazy shot,” Mitchell said of the passes he made in recent games. “It slowed down, it allows me to find guys when they’re open. It goes back to watching a lot of film and just knowing where my teammates are going to be.”

Starting this weekend, Mitchell is going to have to connect on those passes through even tighter windows. Joe Ingles is going to have to keep knocking down threes. Ricky Rubio is going to need to keep making smart passes in transition, plus hit a few jumpers. Derrick Favors needs to own the glass and get some buckets. And Rudy Gobert needs to continue being Rudy Gobert.

Do that, and they are the exact kind of team nobody wants to face in the first round. A team built for playoff basketball that will welcome the physical play. A team that has already proved they will not quit.

A team that is dangerous.