Houston Rockets

The Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the NBA, again

Pop quiz, hotshot: who’s got the longest winning streak in the NBA? Nope, it’s not James Harden, Chris Paul and the hard-charging Houston Rockets. (They’re second, with nine straight victories.) Nor is it Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. (They’re third, with six in a row.) No, the hottest team in the NBA resides on the Wasatch Front.

The Utah Jazz — a team that seemed unlikely to compete after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward and starting point guard George Hill in free agency, and that bounced back from an injury to literal centerpiece Rudy Gobert with a hot streak only to lose 15 of their next 20 — have found their form again. Quin Snyder’s club has now ripped off 10 in a row, reaching double figures in thrilling fashion with Monday’s come-from-behind 101-99 victory over the visiting San Antonio Spurs, capped by a damn good closing kick from rookie Donovan Mitchell:

After struggling with his shot and scuffling through three quarters, the Louisville product turned it on late. Mitchell scored 13 of his 25 points in the fourth as the Jazz erased a 13-point San Antonio lead in just under nine minutes, punctuating the roaring comeback by picking Kyle Anderson’s pocket for a driving layup to give the Jazz a 98-97 lead with 59 ticks left. And after the Spurs went back in front on a pair of Anderson free throws, the 21-year-old dribbled into the frontcourt, took a high screen from Derrick Favors, drove right at a backpedaling Pau Gasol and calmly pulled up for an elbow jumper that splashed through to put Utah back on top with 38.2 seconds remaining.

A couple of defensive stops later — thanks to dogged perimeter work from Royce O’Neale, Utah’s “other” rookie, an undrafted swingman out of Baylor-by-way-of-Spain whose steady two-way play might have helped punch Rodney Hood’s ticket out of Salt Lake City — and the Jazz had their 10th straight W, putting them back over .500 for the first time since Dec. 5.

It wasn’t a beautiful game — Mitchell finished 9-for-28 from the field, and Utah shot just 42 percent as a team — and it carries with it the caveat of coming against a Spurs team without not only still-injured superstar Kawhi Leonard and top reserve Rudy Gay, but also All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who’ll be sidelined through the All-Star break as he receives treatment on “his chronically sore right knee.” But you can only play the team that’s in front of you, and on the second night of a back-to-back after winning in Portland on Sunday, the Jazz managed to battle through what looked to be dead legs in the third quarter, without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, to author a 13-point comeback and snatch victory from the jaws of what seemed like certain defeat:

It was the moment in miniature, a run distilled. Facing defeat, the combination of aggressive defense, flashes of brilliance from Mitchell, timely play from dependable veterans (the Joe Ingles-Derrick Favors pick-and-roll, which carved the Spurs up down the stretch) and smart decision-making by Snyder (leaving Gobert on the bench for the final six-plus minutes, with the Stifle Tower’s blessing, and continuing to ride the Favors-at-center lineup that  fueled the game-winning burst) changed the Jazz’s fortunes. Ten wins in 2 1/2 weeks have had the same effect on Utah’s postseason outlook:

Your mileage may vary when it comes to projection systems like the one FiveThirtyEight uses, but by their reckoning, only the Rockets, Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves have a higher likelihood of cracking the top eight among Western teams … despite the fact that Utah enters Wednesday’s play in 10th place in the varsity conference. (For what it’s worth, Basketball-Reference.com’s playoff probability report pegs Utah’s odds of making the postseason at just under 73 percent, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index puts it at 77 percent.)

The sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets have been red-hot offensively, and could get a boost from the post-All-Star return of Paul Millsap … unless his reintroduction to the lineup causes Mike Malone’s team to hit some speed bumps in the road to the postseason. The sixth-place Portland Trail Blazers have one of the highest-scoring backcourts in the league and a top-10 defense, but they can be had; in fact, the Jazz just had them, decisively, in Oregon. And the No. 5 Thunder can look like world-beaters one moment and worrisome the next. Nothing, outside of Golden State and Houston finishing 1-2 in some order, seems set in stone. So why not Utah?

The Jazz have, by several measurements, played one of the NBA’s toughest schedules to date, and by comparison have one of its easier slates down the stretch. Fifteen of Utah’s final 25 games will come in the friendly confines of Vivint Smart Home Arena, where the Jazz are 17-9 and outscoring opponents by a very healthy 6.6 points per 100 possessions. Thirteen of the 25 will come against teams currently under .500, including 10 against circling-the-drain squads — Phoenix, Dallas, Sacramento, Orlando, Memphis, Atlanta — playing for nothing but the No. 1 pick. There’s an opportunity for the Jazz to make hay … provided what they’ve shown in the run-up to the All-Star break can sustain as winter turns to spring. (And provided they can improve upon what has been an iffy record against losing teams.)

Make no mistake: Utah’s been absolutely dynamite over these past 10 games. Snyder’s flowing offense has roasted opposing defenses to the tune of 112.4 points per 100 possessions, sixth-best in the NBA in this stretch. Rubio has found the shooting stroke (53 percent from the floor on 12.5 attempts per game, 54.2 percent from 3-point range on three tries a night) to unlock his do-everything-else playmaking game. Ingles (57.8 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from deep on 6.3 long balls a game) keeps scorching the net from all over the court.

Gobert and Favors have remained menacing finishers, glass-cleaners and interior deterrents. O’Neale and Jae Crowder have added wing versatility, with the new addition looking rejuvenated by his exit from Cleveland and the opportunity to play a defined role within a set system again. The pieces fit together, especially on defense, where Utah has allowed a microscopic 97.4 points-per-100, the NBA’s No. 2 mark during the winning streak.

Fueling it all is Mitchell, the 13th pick in last June’s draft, whose combination of power, grace, size and quickness calls to mind a young Dwyane Wade, and whose ability to shoulder the scoring load as Utah makes its push for postseason contention has forced Ben Simmons into a two-horse race for Rookie of the Year honors:

Yeah, Mitchell needed 28 shots to score his 25 points. But as our former Fearless Leader Kelly Dwyer notes, a Utah team light on natural shot creators — and, with Rubio sitting, even lighter on facilitation — needed someone to put the ball on the rim and make something happen. Mitchell has done it all year and just keeps doing it, continuing to take advantage of the opportunity to step into the void created by the exits of Hayward and Hill (and now Hood and Joe Johnson) by attacking with abandon when the Jazz need it, playing with patience when they don’t, and digging in on the defensive end either way.

“I think the biggest thing is having confidence in myself,” Mitchell recently told Sports Illustrated’s Rohan Nadkarni. “If you know people around me, even in college, I was confident, but the possible thought of making it to the NBA was crazy […] My teammates allow me to give my input — in the NBA, it’s not normal for rookies to have this kind of freedom. My teammates have been so receptive, and without that, it would be a lot harder.”

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