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Utah Jazz putting pieces together, but need Mitchell in order to truly surge

Utah Jazz Tickets

Recent contests have the Utah Jazz looking primed to turn the corner. But they’ll need Donovan Mitchell to step up big time if they truly are to do so.

Two games is far too small of a sample size to declare that a formerly struggling team has righted the ship, but there’s no denying that the Utah Jazz have looked exceptional in their two most recent wins. Toppling the reigning defending champs at home then heading out on the road to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers in the hostile Moda Center are both very solid accomplishments.

Utah’s defense, led by spectacular rim protection on the part of Rudy Gobert, was about the best it’s been all season against Golden State. And it carried over in a big-time win over the Blazers in which the Jazz won by a whopping 30 points.

But Gobert isn’t the only one who’s been exceptional. In these two recent bouts, several Jazzmen have had the appearance of putting it all together across the board. Joe Ingles has rediscovered his stroke in a big way as he went 4-of-9 from deep against Golden state and 2-of-5 in Portland. Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver have been electric of late, combining for 16 made threes on 30 attempts the past two contests.

Meanwhile, Derrick Favors continues to be his usual steady self, Ricky Rubio had a bounce-back game in Portland which saw him go 10-of-15 from the field and 4-of-4 from deep with eight assists and even Dante Exum has looked arguably the best he has his entire career. He has stuffed the stat sheet the past two games and looked every bit the player Dennis Lindsey and Co. hoped he could be.

The Jazz are sharing the ball extremely well with two straight games of 30 or more assists, and even in losses, the Jazz defense has appeared to regain its former dominance. Over the course of the past five games, Utah is number one in the NBA in defensive rating at a rock solid mark of 94.1. That has elevated them to seventh in the league for the season despite some egregious defensive performances during the early part of the year.

That uptick in defense may be about the most encouraging part about the Jazz’s recent play. If they get back up to snuff there, they’ll no doubt return to the ranks of one of the league’s most daunting squads. The team’s recent play also has Rudy Gobert feeling in good spirits. You’ve got to love what he said after the latest win over Portland, claiming that the vibe and energy in the locker room feel very similar to how the Jazz closed out last season–

That’s about as good of news as Jazz fans could hear at this point and an exciting turn for a team that has otherwise struggled up to this point. Yes, the Jazz still have work to do – again, two games is an incredibly small sample size – but there’s also no denying that they appear to finally be on a great track. It looks very much as if the Jazz are finally putting the pieces all together.

Except, you probably noticed that there was one significant name missing from my earlier list of praise for this Jazz team. That name would be none other than that of Utah’s leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.

The Jazz as a team are putting the pieces together, but until their final, and arguably most important piece, truly puts it together individually, this team won’t reach its full potential. Unfortunately, as good as the Jazz have been these past two games, Mitchell has posted quite forgettable performances.

In the contest against Golden State, he went a dismal 5-of-26 from the field. That’s 19.2 percent for those of you keeping track at home. In Portland, he went an even worse 1-of-10. Yikes.

Now that’s not to say that Mitchell isn’t contributing in other ways. He most certainly is! His defense is continually improving, and he’s been filling the stat sheet with assists, rebounds and steals. He was a positive in both games, including an impressive plus-17 in the bout against Portland, the third best mark on the team.

Not only that, but Mitchell’s presence alone is enough to make an impact. Since he becomes such a focus for opposing defenses, it leads to open looks for his teammates. That’s a big reason why guys like Crowder and Korver have been able to play so well in this recent stretch.

So while it would be unwise to extend overly harsh criticisms on Mitchell who’s very much vital to the team and is a second-year player who’s still trying to learn all the ropes, the fact of the matter is that he’s the final piece of Utah’s puzzle that the team is waiting on to come together. Once Mitchell can get his efficiency back up and more comfortable in his decision making, this team appears to have all the makings of a scary group.

Just consider – in Portland he shot 10 percent and had a measly three points and the Jazz still won by 30. It’s not going to work that way most nights, but it was a nice sign and reminder that this is a talented and deep Jazz team when they put it all together. Against Golden State, he was equally poor shooting-wise, but the team still gritted out a gutsy win thanks to their defense of which Mitchell was a huge part.

Simply put, the Jazz appear closer than ever to the breakout we all expected this season minus the fact that they’re missing one crucial part – their leading scorer being the effective offensive option they need him to be. If Mitchell is able to turn the corner and shoot the ball more efficiently while continuing to have the support of his teammates that he’s had the past two games, this Jazz team will be set to take a big-time leap.

Their next contest will be a dire situation, playing on the second night of a back-to-back against an elite Oklahoma City team that is coming in off of two days of rest. Even if they fall in that bout, though, I like where the Jazz are and where they’re heading. As their shooting steadies as it has in recent games and as their defense continues to be staunch enough to keep them in any game, they’re on the cusp of becoming the elite force we all thought they’d be this year.

Next: Utah Jazz react: Tricky Ricky and the Splash Uncles blaze Portland

And Donovan Mitchell becoming that final missing piece on a consistent basis will be the key to officially turning the corner and righting the ship. Based on his track record, work ethic and undeniable talent, don’t be surprised to see that final piece of the puzzle come into place sooner rather than later.

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Utah Jazz Tickets
Official Utah Jazz Tickets On Sale Now!

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The NBA's Christmas Day slate, ranked in order of fun

Utah Jazz Tickets

The matchups for the NBA’s annual Christmas Day slate of games were leaked on Tuesday, and the schedule includes familiar names like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, as well as some fresh Yuletide faces like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Donovan Mitchell. We figured we’d rank the games from worst to first (or frankincense to gold, if you prefer), so you can schedule your holiday travel accordingly.

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will try to swat away the upstart Knicks on Christmas Day. (AP)

5. Milwaukee Bucks vs. New York Knicks

What could possibly be more exciting than a matchup between Brook Lopez and Enes Kanter on Christmas? Forget hanging stockings from the mantle or leaving presents under the tree. Give your kids the gift of Malcolm Brogdon vs. Tim Hardaway Jr. on the biggest NBA day of the regular season.

Hey, at least there’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is worth the price of admission on his own and a leading MVP candidate. And the game should take place before fans from the biggest media market lose all hope on their team making the playoffs for the first time since 2013. But the matchup will likely not feature Kristaps Porzingis, the other freakish talent who is still recovering from his February ACL tear and would have made a Christmas meeting with Antetokounmpo much more interesting.

C’mon, NBA, you couldn’t have hooked hoop fans up with a marquee matchup between, say, DeMar DeRozan’s San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors. Canada celebrates Christmas, too.

4. Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Anyone who might argue that San Antonio and Toronto just don’t have the mass appeal to qualify for the Christmas slate more interesting should explain to me how Utah does. I’m not sure the casual basketball observer is going to be captivated by the advanced analytics contributions of Joe Ingles.

What this game does have is a handful of under-appreciated stars. Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum may not be household names outside NBA circles, but maybe they should be. You can sell grandma on the likability of those characters, tear your nephew away from Fortnite long enough to catch a few wildly entertaining highlights, and convince your hockey-obsessed uncle that this regular-season NBA game will be competitive throughout.

3. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors

It’s Arguably The Greatest Player Ever vs. Arguably The Greatest Team Every Part 12. Or whatever the number is now. This game is an easy sell: LeBron James will face Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the Warriors with a new cast of characters. And, man, are Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley characters. LaVar Ball might be there, too. This game could get extremely weird.

If new Warrior DeMarcus Cousins is eyeing a return “around Christmas,” as ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported, this game could be more apocalyptic than the TV movie pitch in “Scrooged.” (And as long as we’re making 1980s references, Magic Johnson should be there trying to tamper with Klay Thompson, too.)

I’m not sure it’ll be all that competitive, though, so long as Golden State is engaged enough to remind LeBron he needs better reinforcements to match their starpower, but the specter is certainly there.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

These may be the best teams in the Western Conference not named the Warriors. Considering how deep the West is, that should distract your family from arguing over who drove the furthest for this.

The last two MVP winners, OKC’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden, are pitted opposite each other. Both have complementary All-Stars — Paul George and Chris Paul, respectively — to share the load. New Rocket Carmelo Anthony will face the team that dumped him for Dennis Schröder. Even Steven Adams against Clint Capela is entertaining. Gerald Green will have a cool haircut. It’ll be fun.

Maybe we’ll even find out what nerdy gifts Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Thunder GM Sam Presti exchange over the holidays. Hi, Sam, I got you this abacus from the early 20th century that Ramanujan defeated in a math olympiad. Maybe you can use it to acquire better 3-point shooting.

Sick burn. Fire game.

Celtics forward Marcus Morris gives 76ers star Joel Embiid an update on the status of their playoff series. (AP)

1. Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia is convinced that recent lottery picks Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz comprise the NBA’s best young core, even though they shot a combined 29 percent from 3-point range (Simmons and Fultz, their future backcourt, were 0-for-12 on the season) and lost a playoff series in five games to a Celtics team that started Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. That sentence will anger Sixers fans, and angry Sixers fans make for an exciting foil under any circumstance.

Last we saw these two teams play, Embiid was talking trash and Boston’s Marcus Morris was reminding him that his team trailed the series three games to none. The 76ers will be out to prove that those three Eastern Conference semifinals games decided by 10 combined points were just flukes. The Celtics, meanwhile, will be armed with (knock on wood) a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, along with barbs about premature confetti celebrations and Bryan Colangelo’s burner account saga.

The egg nog will be spiked, Twitter will be afire, and two East Coast rivals will resume battle.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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Utah Jazz Tickets
Official Utah Jazz Tickets On Sale Now!

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