9:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Jazz -6.5, Over/Under: 194.5
The Race for the Playoffs is nearing it’s final leg, as pair of teams with designs on lengthy Postseason Runs collide tonight in Salt Lake City, as the short-handed Boston Celtics battle the Utah Jazz from Vivint Smart Home Arena. Now at the conclusion of a 4-Game West Coast Road Trip, the Celtics (51-23, 2nd in Eastern Conference) find themselves in an odd place in the East, trailing the One Seed Toronto Raptors by Three Games, while owning a comfortable lead against the rest of the field, Six Games ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Standings. So for all intents and purposes, Boston will find themselves owning the Two Seed, though that is likely the farthest thing from Brad Stevens’ mind, for the young Head Coach would prefer to simply return to health before the advent of the Postseason. Injuries have been an issue plaguing this team since the very beginning of the campaign, when Free Agent Swingman Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome broken foot in the Season Opener, effectively ending his maiden voyage with the Franchise even began. While that has hardly deterred them from enjoying various heights of success, the Celtics are certainly feeling the pain at the worst possible time; two weeks ago, Marcus Smart (10.2 PTS, 36.7% FG, 30.1 % 3FG, 3.5 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.3 STL, 10.8 PER) tore a tendon in his Right Thumb, sidelining him for Six-to-Eight Weeks, while prized Free Agent Acquisition Kyrie Irving (24.4 PTS, 49.1% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 24.9 PER) was forced to undergo Knee Surgery a week ago to alleviate lingering soreness, and is likely to miss anywhere from Three to Six Weeks of action. Needless to say, this is a HUGE deal for Boston, who is without not just their most dangerous scoring threat, but a bulldog of defender as well. At this point, all Stevens and his Staff can do is hope that there will be enough time remaining in the campaign for both players (though Smart is highly unlikely) to work off the rust BEFORE the Playoffs begin, because being shorthanded in a potential matchup with say, the Philadelphia 76ers, is not a enviable matchup, or a favorable one for that matter. Granted the cushion that they’ve built for themselves has allowed for the C’s to take a more cautious approach, and thankfully they have enough Depth to still compete down the stretch. Winners of four consecutive contests, these road warriors gutted out a win at woeful Phoenix, who happens to be doing everything within their power to tank without drawing the ire of Adam Silver and the League Offices. After jumping out to an early 31-15 lead in the First Quarter, the visitors nearly relinquished the lead altogether in the next stanza, getting outscored 30-17. However, they would own the Second Half, earning a tough 102-94 victory over the Suns, thanks in large part to that aforementioned Depth; Marcus Morris (13.4 PTS, 43.4% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.9 PER) scored Twenty Points on 6-of-8 Shooting (75.0%), including 3-of-4 from Downtown (75.0%) off the Bench, while consistent Rookie Forward Jayson Tatum (13.7 PTS, 47.8% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 14.9 PER) continued to impress with a team-high Twenty-Three Points on 10-of-18 Shooting from the Field (55.6%), including 2-of-4 from Three (50.0%). Veteran big Al Horford (12.8 PTS, 49.1% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 4.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 17.4 PER) once again filled the Stat Sheet with Nineteen Points, Nine Rebounds, Seven Assists, a Steal, and a Block in an affair in which Boston only shot 42.5% from the Floor, though knocked down 14-of-29 from beyond the Arc (48.3%), and dished out Twenty-Four Assists in comparison to turning the Basketball over just ten times.
Meanwhile, after sustaining heavy losses few thought that the Jazz (42-32, T-7th in Western Conference) would once again be competing for a Playoff Spot, though given the current landscape of the wild, Western Conference, their standing could be subject to change. It’s been utter chaos out West, where eight different teams are vying for Seeds Three through Eight, separated by Six Games. Hell, it’s even closer than that for Utah, who as of this publication stand Tied for the Seventh Seed with the Minnesota Timberwolves (who own the Tiebreaker), and trail the Portland Trail Blazers by just 3.5 Games for the Third Seed. Needless to say, with just Eight Games left in the Regular Season, there is plenty of room to rise (and fall). Of course, Quin Snyder’s charges ascended to this point on the strength of their form over the Second Half of the Season, in which they’ve been in considerably finer form; the Jazz entered the All-Star Break winning Thirteen of Fifteen Contests, only to emerge on a 12-4 Run that has vaulted them from the cellar of the Conference to the thick of the Playoff Picture. So exactly how does a team that began the term a dismal 17-26 pull a complete 180 and go 25-6, you ask? Well, a good deal of their upturn can be attributed to a return to health, particularly with the return of Rudy Gobert (14.0 PTS, 62.3% FG, 10.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.4 BLK, 21.5 PER), the towering Seven-Footer from France, who has been a one-man deterrent in the Paint. The foundational piece of Snyder’s Defense, Gobert missed Twenty-Six Games due to a knee injury suffered in ironically a previous meeting with Boston back on December 15th, and didn’t return until January 19th, a point in which Utah have since gone 24-4. Coupled with Derrick Favors (12.2 PTS, 56.1% FG, 7.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.0 BLK, 18.8 PER), who played admirably in his absence, the Jazz continue to be one of the staunchest defensive teams in the league, allowing just 100.2 Points (3rd Overall) on 45.1% Shooting from the Field (6th Overall), including 56.5% Shooting from within the Arc (6th Overall) and 36.6% beyond it (16th Overall), while permitting 20.0 Assists (2nd Overall) and forcing 14.9 Turnovers (6th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve relegated opponents to an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 50.9% (7th Overall), while racking up a Turnover Percentage of 14.0% (4th Overall) and a Defensive Rebounding Percentage of 79.8% (4th Overall). The emergence of Donovan Mitchell (20.3 PTS, 43.5% FG, 33.8% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.5 STL, 16.4 PER) has also played a large role in their fortunes, as the Thirteenth Overall Pick in last Summer’s NBA Draft has certainly outperformed expectations; the hyper-athletic Swingman out of Louisville has been a revelation for Snyder & Co., leading the team in scoring, all the while filling the void left by the aforementioned Hayward, who left the team in Free Agency to sign a lucrative deal with the Celtics. Mitchell scored a game-high Twenty-One Points in Utah’s 110-91 thumping of the injury-riddled Golden State Warriors on Sunday Night, a performance in which the visitors counted seven different players in double-figures by the end of the affair. In addition to the Rookie’s showing, Gobert and Favors dominated the interior throughout the night, accounting for Twenty-Seven Points on 11-of-18 Shooting (61.1%), with Twenty-Three Rebounds (Nine Offensive), Four Assists, and Five Blocks. The Jazz shot a solid 3% from the Floor, including 12-of-28 from Downtown (42.9%), while dishing out Twenty-Seven Assists in comparison to Fourteen Turnovers. Defensively, they took advantage of the Warriors’ injury situation (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green all sat out, while Steph Curry left early with a sprained MCL), limiting one of the most potent offensive attacks in the league to 41.8% Shooting Overall.