The Utah Jazz needed the Washington Wizards to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday night in Oregon.
Know who else needed the Wizards to beat the Blazers in the Northwest?
It was a bad night for two teams trying to chase down one of the final playoff spots in their respective conferences. Tipping-point moments occur throughout a season, but after the calendar turns to March and the 60-game threshold arrives, such moments acquire more centrality in the public memory.
Two moments very definitely cut against the Wizards and Jazz on Tuesday.
The Wizards’ worst loss of the season came on Martin Luther King Day afternoon. At home for a matinee against a Portland team which had just gotten its teeth kicked in (the previous Saturday) by the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, the Wizards figured to give their fans a good show. Instead, Portland scored 94 points in the first three quarters, building an 18-point lead and cruising to the finish line for a 108-98 win which was a lot easier than the final tally suggested. The push for the No. 8 seed in the East was the most important part of Washington’s journey to Oregon on Tuesday, but the awareness of that MLK debacle surely sat uneasily in the minds of every Wizard. Urgent business, spiced with a little revenge, should create a substantial motivational stew for an NBA club with just 20 games left in the regular season.
For two and a half quarters, the Wizards played the way a desperate team is supposed to play.
Infused with the energy and defensive commitment which were lacking in D.C. a month and a half ago, the Wizards built a 67-54 third-quarter lead. The Blazers had gacked away a 21-point third-quarter lead to Houston nearly two weeks ago on their home floor, but this time, they had to make the long climb up the scoreboard against an opponent which had everything to play for. The Wizards weren’t at the finish line, but they had managed to play two and a half quarters on their terms, even without Bradley Beal.
One and a half more quarters of merely competent basketball would have given the Wizards the kind of road victory that can not only change a season, but can provide a fresh wave of energy which can carry a team through the final 20 games of an 82-game slate.
Could Washington close the sale after the weekend’s brutal one-point loss to the Indiana Pacers? Could the Wizards wipe away the bitter recollection of what had happened at the hands of the Trail Blazers on January 18?
The easy instinct is to say that the Wizards fell short because Gerald Henderson made a legitimately great defensive play at the end of regulation, swatting a Marcin Gortat layup attempt to send the game into overtime. The natural inclination is to say the Wizards lost at the end of regulation and in the extra period, when Damian Lillard finished off a 41-point night and carried Portland to the winner’s circle.
However, the Wizards’ true undoing lay in the fact that they allowed Portland to uncork a 17-4 run before the third quarter had even run its course. From a position of strength, the Wizards didn’t merely allow Portland to come back; they allowed Portland to come back quickly, without having to exhaust a maximum supply of energy. That’s when Washington lost, and because Washington lost, Portland gained.
Because Portland gained, Utah lost… and in addition to that loss for Utah, the Jazz also dropped their own game to the Atlanta Hawks.
Utah has been a terrible road team this season, but when the Jazz won in New Orleans on Saturday, one night after a discouraging setback against the Memphis Grizzlies, they had reason to believe they could revive their push for the postseason. The Jazz, after all, are in the hunt for the 8 seed in the West because they’ve been strong at home. Moreover, Atlanta was smack-dab in the middle of a long Western swing in March, precisely the kind of trip that can take the starch out of a team in the opposite corner of the country. (This certainly applies to the Orlando Magic, a team which had nothing left against the Los Angeles Lakers on this same Tuesday night in L.A.)
The Jazz had defeated Toronto, Boston and Miami — teams two through four in the East — at home this season. Why wouldn’t they be able to beat the Hawks, team number five? They needed to. Moreover, when they bolted to a 27-16 lead after one quarter, it seemed very hard to believe that the Hawks would be able to steadily reverse the course of the contest to their advantage.
Late-season Western roadie? Higher elevation? Desperate opponent? A formidable team at home? The Hawks were in trouble.
The Jazz, much like the Wizards, turned a double-digit lead and a promising evening into a nightmare.
For one thing, Atlanta made up ground in the second quarter despite the absence of one rather fundamental part of winning basketball:
Hawks down 1 at half despite zero offensive rebounds! Defense really picked up, won 2q25-15. @FOXSportsSE
— Bob Rathbun Hawks (@BobRathbunTV) March 9, 2016
The Jazz disintegrated on offense in the game’s two middle quarters, posting just 15 points in both the second and third stanzas. Other than Derrick Favors (7-of-15), no Jazz Man could shoot worth a lick. Gordon Hayward: 6-of-18. Newly-acquired Shelvin Mack: 2-of-13. Rodney Hood: 6-of-16.
Rudy Gobert coughed up six turnovers on a night when Utah’s starters gave away the ball 16 times and the whole team surrendered 20 possessions. The Jazz weren’t just profoundly impotent in the game’s middle quarters; they were sloppy as well. Teams can survive one of the two deficits on a given night, but not both. The Jazz limped to an 84-point performance, replicating their 42-point first half in the second.
Both Utah and Washington held double-digit leads on Tuesday in Salt Lake City and Portland, respectively. Had the Jazz and Wiz held on, Utah would have been just one game behind Houston for the 8 seed in the West, and Washington would have stood just 1.5 back of Chicago for the 8 in the East. Now, those deficits are 2 and 2.5 games.
With only 19 games left for each team, the Jazz and Wizards can’t afford these abrupt left turns over the final five weeks. The question becomes: Can a leopard change its spots after showing that the All-Star break clearly did nothing to fundamentally change its way of proceeding?