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Sports & Recreation

For The First Time Since The ‘90s, The Utah Jazz Will Start The Playoffs With The NBA’s Best Record

A photo of Donovan Mitchell high fiving teammates.
Jeffrey D. Allred
/
Deseret News
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell high fives teammates as he heads to the bench during a regular season game.

The Utah Jazz wrapped up their regular season last weekend with the best record in the NBA for the first time since the late ‘90s. Next up: the playoffs.

Deseret News Jazz reporter Sarah Todd said it’s been a tough season for the team, both on and off the court.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: This was a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But briefly, recap it for us.

Sarah Todd: Not only was it a shortened season, but the time in between games was really truncated, too. We're talking about a very grueling schedule that took a toll on everyone on the team [and] everyone in the league.

You get into the season, the Jazz are rising to the top of the league. But there's also adversity that comes in between those moments, off the court. A long-time Jazz massage therapist, Doug Birrell, died. So the team was grieving. They had the plane that had to have an emergency landing before they went to Memphis, and Donovan Mitchell missed that game. They're dealing with life and death scenarios, so it was more than just a rough season as far as basketball goes.

They're the number one team in the league. It's the first time that the Utah Jazz have outright had the best record in the league. Around the league there's not a lot of people who really believe that they can go all the way. But the Jazz are incredibly confident.

CB: There was a collective sigh of relief from the Jazz fan base on Wednesday night because the Los Angeles Lakers won their game. That means Utah does not have to play last year's champions in the first round. Now it's down to the Golden State Warriors or Memphis Grizzlies. How do the Jazz match up with either of those teams?

A photo of Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell celebrates after a game with teammate Bojan Bogdanovic by showering him with water.
Scott G Winterton/ Deseret News
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell celebrates after a game with teammate Bojan Bogdanovic by showering him with water.

ST: Well, if you're a Jazz fan, then on Friday night you are a Memphis Grizzlies fan, because the Grizzlies are absolutely a better matchup for the Jazz. They're a young team with a lot of good talent, but they're inexperienced. The Jazz beat them three times in a row this season pretty easily. Actually, one of those games was without Donovan Mitchell the day after that scary flight that they had. Even under those kinds of circumstances, they know they can beat this Grizzlies team.

The Warriors, on the other hand, are a different beast because you've got Steph Curry, a previous MVP, who's playing at an MVP level right now. No matter the talent that the Jazz have, that's just not the kind of player that you want to go up against, especially in the first round. And more than likely, [the Warriors] will be their first round opponent. But like I said, Jazz fans are Grizzlies fans for one day.

CB: In addition to their record, the Jazz are also first in another category: the number of fans being allowed in Vivint Smart Home Arena for the playoffs. The team will allow 13,000 people, which is 71% capacity. What kind of an impact could that have?

ST: One of the reasons the Jazz really wanted that top seed is because it ensures home court advantage throughout the playoffs. So if they make it to the Finals, no matter what, they are guaranteed to have the home court advantage. The players feel good when they've got thousands of people screaming and cheering and they're behind them. Going from last year, being in the bubble with no people at all, it's going to be a very welcome part of the playoffs.

CB: Plenty of teams in the playoffs can be classified as “super teams,” top players joining together, all in the hopes of winning a championship. The Los Angeles Lakers obviously come to mind. But that hasn't really happened in Utah. They just retooled their existing roster. What does that say about the commitment to these players?

ST: I think that it's more a commitment to a style of basketball. When you have names like LeBron James and Anthony Davis running the Lakers, that's more about top tier talent, and then you get what you can from the role players. With the Jazz, it's more about team basketball and relying on the idea that even if one of the team’s best players passes up a good shot, you might have a great shot from somebody who doesn’t have that star power recognition. That's how the Jazz have ended up at number one this season is playing that team style of basketball. I think they’re really relying on that to take them to the top.

CB: Right now, Vegas has the Jazz at 15-2 odds to win it all. What's your prediction?

ST: The problem with looking at any Western Conference team is that the conference is loaded. While there are favorable matchups, the Jazz could end up going against any number of teams. The first round matchup that could be against Steph Curry leading a team that has won three championships. Even the teams that maybe don't have as many expectations as those that I just mentioned, you could end up facing the Damian Lillard-led Portland Trailblazers. He could score 50 on you at any point, so there is no easy out. I think for any team in the Western Conference to be too confident right now would probably be the wrong approach.

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