Just one week ago, the Utah Jazz were wrapping up a disastrous road trip through Texas, dropping three straight on the road and four overall. The Los Angeles Lakers passed the Jazz in the fight for the final playoff spot, and the team seemed on the verge of a collapse.
The team’s playeres were not the only ones smashing the panic button. Fans from all over the country were mailing in the remainder of the season, and local fans stayed away in mass numbers from the traditionally packed Energy Solutions Arena.
One week later, the Jazz dispatched Portland, completing a five-game win streak that reinserted the team into the Western Conference Playoffs. After Monday’s dominating win over the Trailblazers, the Jazz own a half-game lead over L.A. and are one-and-a-half games ahead of Dallas. The team has the advantage of having the tiebreaker over both teams.
So what changed over the last week, and what can the Jazz do to make sure they do not slide back behind the Lakers?
There are several ways to explain the Jazz success, and it comes from a combination of factors. Certainly, scheduling plays a part in the run. Only one team over .500 mixed in, and four of the five games were played in Salt Lake City. But the eye test shows there is more to this run than just home cooking.
The team’s key components are finally gelling the way they were designed at the beginning of the year. And even though it is different than what Jazz fans are used to, the key has been the return of Mo Williams.
Williams is never going to be the pass-first point guard Jazz fans expect, but he brings an offensive dynamic to the back court that the other guards cannot match. He quickly moves the ball to the front court, hoping to catch the defense on its heels. If the defense gets back, he quickly initiates the Jazz offense.
Before Williams’ return, the majority of the Jazz offense was isolation plays in the post to Al Jefferson. Williams adds the pick and roll to the Jazz arsenal, diversifying the offense and creating more open shots for the wings, in particular Randy Foye and Gordon Hayward.
The pick and roll is particularly hairy for defenders because Williams is not afraid to shoot. With a pass-first guard, the defense can slack back to whomever set the pick, but now whatever team the Jazz face must make the effort to keep Williams from getting in a groove.
Monday night, Williams showed just what happens when he gets hot, hitting six of seven 3-point shots while scoring 20 points in the 112-102 victory against Portland.
In Saturday’s win against Brooklyn, Foye was the hot hand, hitting eight of nine from three as the Jazz buried the Nets 116-107. In both games, Williams forced the action, finding the hot read.
The entire team has responded to the more efficient offense, averaging more than 106 points per game during the current run. Jefferson won the Western Conference Player of the Week, averaging 19.8 points. Foye has been deadly from three during the win streak, hitting 16-23 from behind the arc. Even the bench is more productive, with Favors leading the way in his increased role since Enes Kanter’s injury.
Things set up nicely for the Jazz. The toughest opponents remain on the Jazz schedule. Denver visited last night and Oklahoma City will be in town on Tuesday. On Friday, New Orleans visits before a quick road trip to Golden State Sunday.
The final playoff spot is Utah’s to lose. Play as they have over the last week, and they will find themselves continuing their season. Revert back to the previous weeks’ team, and they will be counting lottery balls.