The Utah Jazz are the Detroit Pistons of the Western Conference.
Sure, they’d love to make the playoffs — it would be great if they did — but as much as they’re locked in a present-tense battle, they’re more fundamentally playing for the future.
A championship is not a realistic aspiration this season, and it won’t be in 2017, either. The Jazz are trying to build a long-term foundation, and making the playoffs will provide one small but inspiring piece of that larger architecture. This is what the Pistons are trying to do in the East as they attempt to fend off veteran Chicago and Washington teams for the 8 seed. This is what Utah is trying to do in the West against the Dallas Mavericks and another club with established professionals, the Houston Rockets.
Wednesday night in Houston, the Jazz’s project took a meaningful step forward:
— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 24, 2016
The part of the play you don’t quite get to see — but which merits a little analysis — is James Harden picking up Rodney Hood 40 feet from the basket. Harden bodied up Hood, acting like the tough guy, but that completely unnecessary move — so far removed from the basket and the three-point line — meant that he put himself in a compromised position. Harden had to make a substantial and lengthy lateral movement if he wanted to stay with hood. When Gordon Hayward brought a screen to Hood’s area, Harden was not ready to adjust. The Jazz gained a numbers advantage — partly because Hayward (paying tribute to Jazz legend John Stockton) grabbed Trevor Ariza (no call), but also because Harden unnecessarily crowded Hood.
Harden is the member of last year’s Western Conference runner-up, Hayward a player trying to get his first taste of a playoff win (one appearance, but no victories). The Rockets have the veteran core — Harden, Dwight, Ariza, Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith — while the Jazz are chock-full of players unaccustomed to the playoff rodeo.
You never could have guessed as much on Wednesday night.
The Rockets continue to baffle, albeit in a way that’s ironically quite predictable. If it makes sense, Houston doesn’t do it.
Failing to put away the Jazz at home after holding Utah to 34 first-half points? Yeah, that doesn’t make sense. The Rockets scored only 38 second-half points at home in a game they absolutely had to win against a sub-.500 opponent. That doesn’t make sense, either — especially not when the Rockets have snapped double-digit home-court winning streaks for Toronto and Boston after the All-Star break.
If the Jazz are the Pistons of the West — playing for the future as well as the present — the Rockets are playing for now and now alone. Many of their players face more yesterdays than tomorrows. The Hardens and Howards of the world will see their championship windows shrink instead of expand the next four or five years. The Jazz intend to become an organization whose window will become a lot wider, and gutsy comebacks such as Wednesday night’s defensive dandy will move that process along.
The Bulls-Pistons and Rockets-Jazz races for the 8 seed in each conference really are one and the same thing, for all the granular differences one can identify between the two. Chicago and Houston are trying to avoid embarrassment by snagging the 8 seed. Detroit and Utah are pushing to register what would be a very satisfying and soul-nourishing accomplishment, something which will bathe each team in hope and optimism for the long haul.
The Jazz — no longer in a funk — have gone through a seven-game win streak, followed by a 3-10 stretch, and now this 6-1 burst.
Their music might be all over the place, but the Jazzmen are definitely bringing some soul into this Western Conference playoff push.
As for watching the Rockets? The experience is simply soul-crushing, regardless of what happens in the next three weeks.