Then, Utah turned around and beat the Spurs, who embarrassed them the night before. While they finished the night still 1.5 games behind Denver for the final playoff spot, the odds seemed better than after the previous night.
But the health of the Jazz, which surprisingly to this point had not been an issue, will decide whether Utah will make the playoffs.
Already, starters Josh Howard and Raja Bell have missed significant time. After Sunday’s game, the Jazz also lost fellow starter C.J. Miles and backup point guard Earl Watson. Watson appears to be out for the season, while the prognosis for Miles is still being determined. In Monday’s game Jeremy Evans twisted an ankle, leaving the Jazz with nine healthy players to finish the game.
The Jazz front office reacted to the rash of injuries by signing point guard Blake Ahearn to a 10-day contract. Ahearn, who played for Reno of the D-League, will be the 15th player on the roster, but could see time fairly quickly with five players out.
At the beginning of the season, Utah loaded up on depth to help through the lockout-shortened season. Howard was signed when we already had several wing players. Head Coach Ty Corbin kept a rotation that sometimes saw as many as 11 players play regular minutes in a game. The benefit was less stress on the team, with star players playing fewer minutes than they would probably see in a normal season. NBA projectors pinned the hopes of the Jazz team on the depth of the bench.
Now the torch will be handed to some players who before the season weren’t expected to contribute. DeMarre Carroll got his first start as a Jazz player, only the second in his career, after being picked up in the middle of the season as an insurance policy. Carroll earned the start after scoring 16 points against the Spurs Sunday, hitting three 3-pointers. He did not score in 11 minutes of play Monday, but provided hustle and defense while on the court.
Jeremy Evans saw playing time early. Evans played 18 minutes, and would have played more had he not sprained his ankle. His only shot was a tip in in the first quarter, but filled the highlight reel with three blocks including a block of DeJuan Blair’s dunk attempt.
But with all that is needed from Carroll and Evans in their new roles, it is the play of Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks which will determine the fate of the Jazz.
Fortunately for Utah, star players Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap remained relatively healthy this season, with both missing a combined six games over the shortened season, with Jefferson missing two of those games to attend his grandmother’s funeral. This allowed Corbin to slowly develop the game of Favors and Kanter without compromising the playoff chances for the Jazz.
Now that the bench will be needed more, Favors will become the featured player of the second unit. So far, he has performed well, averaging 9.0 points and 7.4 rebounds in the last five games while seeing his playing time increased to over 25 minutes. His field goal percentage also increased to 58.8 percent, and his PER is 16.7, well above an average NBA player.
Kanter and Burks have both seen fewer minutes, but that is expected from players still learning how to play the game. Kanter may be seeing fewer minutes, but has been focusing on his rebounding and doing the little things to help the team win. In a recent broadcast, Jazz color commentator Matt Harpring noted Kanter is clogging the middle on offense due to his lack of understanding of the Jazz system, making it more difficult for Favors to score. Kanter only began playing organized basketball a few years ago, and is coming off an entire year of not playing when ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
Burks also has shown signs of growth over this season, even making the rookie rankings list on ESPN and other websites. The focus of one such article, posted on grantland.com last Tuesday, was all about his defensive abilities. The article pointed out his great team defense, something the Jazz system emphasizes, while his isolation defense needs improvement. But for a rookie to show he already understands the basic defensive philosophies of a team shows the growth he already has made.
Now that the bench players are forming a unit which can effectively relieve the starters, making it work on game day will be the trick. With eight games remaining after Monday’s victory, the Jazz have few opportunities to make up ground with the rest of the Western Conference. The two key games will be last night’s game at Houston and at home against Dallas on Monday. Both teams sit just ahead of Utah in the standings, and will help move the Jazz into the final playoff spots. Losses will push them farther out, plus give the tiebreakers to the other teams.
The rest of the schedule plays out favorably for Utah, with half their remaining eight games against teams out of the playoffs. However, this week’s road trip could put any playoff push out of reach. On Saturday, a red hot Grizzlies team awaits. If the Jazz can get two out of three road games, their playoff hopes will still be alive.
If they make the playoffs, it will be because of the supporting players filling their role and executing the Jazz offense.