The Utah Jazz start out the post-All-Star break slate with an important road game against the red hot Oklahoma City Thunder.
At last season’s All-Star break, it was still very much in question whether or not the Utah Jazz had what it would take to bust their way into the postseason. They’d played well leading up to the break, but at 30-28 with 24 games left, it was hard to know whether their solid play was sustainable or if they’d revert to their prior woeful ways. When all was said and done, Utah went 18-6 in those final contests to cruise into the fifth seed in the West.
With that backdrop heading into this year’s post-All-Star stretch, several Jazz fans are optimistic that we’ll see yet another surge out of a team that really seemed to hit their stride in the final part of the season a year ago. That’s particularly backed up by the fact that the Jazz face one of the easiest schedules in the league to close out the year.
And while Utah’s playoff odds aren’t in nearly as much question this time around, they still have yet to really prove themselves against some of the NBA’s top squads. As such, they need to capitalize on the few such bouts they have left before the season’s end, beginning with their very first game post-break.
Utah begins the season’s ending stretch with a meaningful contest against none other than the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team they toppled in the first round of the playoffs last postseason. The Thunder have been one of the hottest teams in the league of late as they’ve found themselves surging up the standings and a mere pair of games out of second in the West.
As such, if the Jazz can rediscover their mojo from last year’s playoffs, they’ll have a chance to make an absolute statement in the first game back in action from the break on Friday in OKC.
By no means is this game a must-win or anything of the sort. The Jazz could drop this contest and still be completely fine. Their playoff hopes and their chances of advancing beyond the first round would all still be very much intact. Nevertheless, if they’re aiming to get things started out on the right foot, this will be a crucial bout.
The Jazz have dropped both games against the Thunder so far this season, the second coming in disappointing fashion as OKC rallied from 13 down midway through the third to steal the win on Utah’s home court behind Paul George‘s huge night and despite Russell Westbrook‘s struggles. If the Jazz want to prove they can hang with the West’s elite teams, including the one they stopped short in last season’s playoffs, they’ll need to do so in this return contest.
In fairness to the Jazz, both prior contests were played on the second night of a back-to-back for them. Thankfully, this time around the teams will be on about as level of a playing field as possible considering that neither has suited up since before the All-Star break.
Both teams should be refreshed from their time off, but whichever is most focused will likely emerge the victor. Ideally the Jazz will be that team, allowing them to set the tone for the remainder of the year as they aim to push their way up the standings into the postseason.
It should be mentioned that last season, the Jazz were riding an 11-game winning streak going into the All-Star break with a chance to make a similar statement by facing the Portland Trail Blazers in their first game back. Instead of making said statement, though, they fell in blowout fashion, ending their streak in a disappointing way.
They bounced back quickly, though, and were able to make the end of the regular season great. Such could likewise be the case if they fall in Oklahoma City on Friday.
But I assert that they’ll be much better off establishing confidence and rhythm right off the bat by toppling a Thunder team that’s looked like one of the best in the Association. Doing so could work wonders for their performance the rest of the way into the postseason.
The Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder tip-off in this crucial bout with statement potential on Friday at 7:30 PM MT on ESPN.