There are two ways to feel about the Utah Jazz, and they fundamentally conflict.
One is confident. Even though they received an unkind draw, the Jazz are a threat to make genuine noise in the playoffs. They enter with 50 wins, the third-highest point differential in the league, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors. They possess the NBA’s best defense, an increasingly smooth offense, and all the benefits that come with good health, prolonged continuity, and role acceptance. Strip away a treacherous path that includes a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets and a potential second-round series with the Golden State Warriors, their statistical profile is that of a title contender.
That belief rests on 22-year-old Donovan Mitchell, who’s made a meaningful leap in his second season, particularly as a pick-and-roll scorer. Only six players in the NBA averaged more than his 26.7 points per game since the All-Star break. It’s interesting to compare Mitchell’s sophomore numbers with Dwyane Wade’s, if only to imagine a universe where Utah’s best offensive player is able to handle the type of postseason load his breathtaking dynamism suggests. As a game-breaking scorer who can MacGyver his way through broken possessions, Mitchell is the reason Utah is the third-most efficient offensive team in the clutch, defined as games within five points with five or fewer minutes to go. His 46-point response to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 43-point cannonball is the reason Utah beat the Bucks in early March.
It also relies on Rudy Gobert, who’s deserving of his second straight Defensive Player of the Year trophy. He’s the key ingredient in a formula that allows the fewest threes and most mid-range shots in the league. The Jazz press and switch, knowing Gobert can clean everything up along the backline. But like any generational defender, the French Rejection (sorry, not sorry) is also great because he takes away opportunities before they appear. Watch how much space he blankets on this play: