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Utah Jazz hit the road with confidence — and a better idea of who they'll see in the playoffs

Published March 15, 2017 3:19 pm

Jazz • There's only six regular-season home games left.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Blake Griffin dipped his shoulder, leaned into the defender and didn't feel the give his 250-pound frame probably expected.

Could Gordon Hayward have stood his ground like that even a year ago?

"Probably not," Hayward admitted. "He's one of the strongest guys in the league."



The lessons here: First, don't skip leg day. Second, things change — and fast.

Most might have thought just two days ago that the Jazz didn't stand much of a chance against Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers if the teams met in the first round of the playoffs. L.A. thumped the Jazz in their first two meetings this season. The Jazz hadn't looked good enough, experienced enough, strong enough.

Well, enough of that.

The Jazz appear to be on a first-round collision course with the Clippers and, suddenly, that matchup looks a little less daunting after Monday night's 114-108 victory.

"We've struggled a little bit against them," Jazz forward Joe Ingles said. "Last game here, they came out and kind of punched us and we let it happen. I think the guys were ready this time. We obviously know what's at stake with potentially playing them again."

The Jazz are 42-25 this season, putting them two games ahead of the fifth-place Clippers, 4.5 games ahead the sixth-place Oklahoma City Thunder and four games back of the third-place Houston Rockets.

The Jazz have played those three teams in succession over the past week, and they now have an even better understanding of how they might stack up against their three most likely first-round foes.

If the Jazz slide — and they have a more difficult remaining schedule than either the Clippers or Thunder — a matchup with the Rockets could be interesting. The Jazz have beaten Houston twice this season. And while James Harden is putting up MVP numbers, Utah's plodding pace and stingy defense might be able to grind down the Rockets over the course of a series.

If the Thunder manage to leapfrog the Clippers, Quin Snyder will have to come up with an answer for Russell Westbrook. Utah's third-ranked defense depends heavily on getting back in transition, getting set and forcing their opponent to work in the half court. As Thunder coach Billy Donovan said this week, "We have the best transition player in the world on our team," and he certainly has given the Jazz problems this season.

The odds, however, favor a Jazz-Clips showdown in April. The number crunchers over at fivethirtyeight.com project the two teams to finish with 50 wins apiece, taking fourth and fifth in the Western Conference.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers already is planning to send a scout to shadow the Jazz.

"I know statistically there's a great chance we're going to play them, so we start watching them more," the coach said. "They're watching us more. In about five games, we'll send someone to just travel with them. They should allow him on the plane; he's going to go to every game. That's what they'll do back."

The Jazz have other plane rides to deal with first, of course. They begin a four-game road trip to the east Wednesday, when they take on the Detroit Pistons.

"We'll have our hands full," Hayward said. "But I'm glad that we're going out there after a win like tonight. I think that gives you a little bit of confidence. It definitely makes you feel better on those long flights out east."

Perhaps along the way they'll find time to look for ways to slow down Chris Paul. The Clippers' point guard can give anyone fits, and the nine-time all-star showed why he would be a tough matchup — even for a healthy George Hill — by scoring 33 points against the Jazz on Monday.

But the Jazz showed they have ways to counter.

The Jazz clearly have the advantage at small forward: Hayward scored a team-high 27 points in the win. Meanwhile, Utah managed to go small, playing Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson at power forward with Derrick Favors injured, without letting Griffin (8 points on 3-of-8 shooting) hurt them on the other end. And Jazz center Rudy Gobert showed his toughness and fire as he battled all-star center DeAndre Jordan and jawed with L.A.'s backcourt of Paul and J.J. Redick.

So with 15 games left in the regular season, the Clippers guard is bracing for a "hostile series" to play out at Vivint Smart Home Arena and Staples Center next month.

"They matched our physicality," Paul said after Monday's game. "I think the previous games we've been able to beat them pretty good because we've been really physical. I thought today, it felt like a playoff game a little bit. I think they knew that we could possibly be playing them."

Make that a strong possibility.

afalk@sltrib.com

Twitter: @aaronfalk —

Jazz at Pistons

P At the Palace of Auburn Hills

Tipoff • 5:30 p.m. MT

TV • ROOT

Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM

About the Jazz • Play nine of their final 15 games of the regular season on the road, starting with this four-game road trip. … Rudy Gobert has a league-leading 163 blocks — 22 more than anyone else. … The Jazz are 32-9 this season when Gordon Hayward scores at least 20 points.

About the Pistons • Got clobbered by the Jazz, 110-77, earlier this season in Salt Lake City. … Tobias Harris leads the team in scoring at 16.5 points per game. … Have won four of their past five games.

 

 

 

 

 

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