If at the beginning of the season you told Jazz fans we would be challenging the Los Angeles Lakers for a playoff seed, most would assume it would be for the first seed, or possibly the fourth and home court.
The Lakers, with the off-season additions of all-star Dwight Howard and future Hall of Fame candidate Steve Nash, were supposedly in contention to top Oklahoma City and San Antonio and become king of the Western Conference.
Instead, both teams sit in a death match for the final playoff spot, the winner a first-round date with, most likely, San Antonio, and the loser relegated to lottery status and NBA no man’s land; not good enough to be in the playoffs, but not bad enough for a good shot at a high draft pick.
To be fair, the Jazz were not expected to contend for the NBA championship, but fighting for the last playoff spot is akin to taking a step back in the growth process in the eyes of Jazz fans. The team, which is mostly the same as last year’s that made the playoffs, was expected to improve. In the eyes of fans, that meant at least a seventh seed in the West.
Heading into January, a higher seed than last year’s eighth-place finish seemed reasonable. On Jan. 26, the Jazz sat at 24-20, six games above the Lakers. The Jazz, due to a scheduling quirk where they played the majority of the early season on the road, had several home games lined up while the Lakers were looking at long road trips.
But the previously formidable home court advantage, and their lead over the Lakers, faltered. The Jazz confidence began to shake after a 45-point beat down at Houston. Even though in the games afterward it seemed the Jazz fixed their problems, it was fool’s gold.
Some try to argue the Jazz were unlucky, that a few bounces their way could change how we look at the recent trend. But the fact is the Jazz have not closed out games effectively, and this led to their undoing.
Mixed in to these losses was a pair of games where the heart of the Jazz was brought into question. The team exhibited no energy in a home loss to Atlanta, while they sat at the end of another beat down in New York, losing by 29.
Meanwhile, the Lakers finally figured out their identity after their horrible start. L.A. is taking advantage of the Jazz mistakes, but it is not because it had an easier schedule.
Both teams now head into the final month with identical records. The Jazz do hold the tiebreaker, having won two of the three games between the two teams.
If the Jazz only beat the teams they should, they will drop below the Lakers. If they want to be in the playoffs, they must upset at least one playoff-bound team.
There is also the Texas road trip of San Antonio, Houston and Dallas later this month.
These ten games will be the key for a Jazz playoff birth.