Utah Jazz (32-35) vs. Phoenix Suns (18-49)
Thursday, 7 p.m.
Radio: 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns both walk into Thursday night’s game at Vivint Arena with swagger. The Jazz landed their best victory of the season Monday night against the Cavaliers, while the Suns sunk Minnesota with a last-second 3-pointer.
On a nationally televised stage, Rodney Hood stepped up big when the Jazz needed him most. With Gordon Hayward sidelined (plantar fasciitis) against the East-leading Cavaliers, Hood outdueled LeBron James by scoring 28 points. Point guard Shelvin Mack also helped to carry the load, pitching in a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists.
The Cavaliers, who average 103.6 points per game, were held to 85 points by the Jazz defense. The Jazz have held their opponents to under 100 points during this three-game winning streak.
Utah now has new life in the Western Conference playoff chase. The critical victory over Cleveland allowed the Jazz to remain two games behind Houston and Dallas for the final spots. Houston and Dallas both lost on Wednesday night, bringing the Jazz within one and a half games.
The Jazz and Suns are coming into Thursday’s game on two nights rest, which might be extra beneficial for the Jazz. Hayward has been listed as "questionable". It remains to be seen if he will be in uniform. If not, the Jazz will lean on Hood once again to be the team’s scoring machine.
P.J. Tucker led the Suns Monday with 23 points and 12 rebounds, but Mirza Teletovic had the shot of the night. In the closing seconds of a tie game, he hit a 3-point shot with 1.2 seconds left to send the Timberwolves packing.
The Suns have had a miserable season, which has seen two former Jazzmen play the role of head coach. Since saying goodbye to Jeff Hornacek, the team is 4-14 under Earl Watson. However, those four wins have come in the last nine games and Phoenix is slowly building confidence and learning how to win basketball games. They are 6-27 in road games this season.
The Jazz defeated the Suns in both matchups this season. On Dec. 21, the Jazz won in Salt Lake City 110-89. On Feb. 6, the Jazz won 98-89 in Phoenix.
Much has changed though for the Suns since that February meeting. Point guard Brandon Knight has returned from injury, the team traded away Markieff Morris to Washington, and youngsters Devon Booker and Alex Len have shined like stars as of late.
While Booker is blooming too late to win rookie of the year, there is no doubt the Suns struck gold with him in the 2015 draft. Booker has been red hot in March, averaging 24.7 points with 5.3 assists per game. Along the way, he has even drawn some Kobe Bryant comparisons while scoring 32 or more points in three of his last seven games. It will be interesting to see which young guard wins the scoring duel, Booker or Hood.
Not too long ago, Suns fans were ready to give up on Len (drafted fifth overall in 2013). Over his last 10 games, however, Len has surprised the league with a double-double average of 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds, a far cry from his numbers before the All-Star break. Len only had five points in each game against the Jazz earlier this season, but watch for him to put up bigger numbers Thursday night.
Rudy Gobert swatted away the Suns four times in the February tilt. Without a doubt, Gobert will be hungry to reach that number again.
The Suns were forced to play without a true point guard in the February matchup because Knight, Eric Bledsoe and Ronnie Price were injured. They now have a healthy Knight and Price in the lineup. Knight scored 26 points in the season’s first matchup with the Jazz and scored 30 against Golden State last week in his second game back from injury.
With the scoring ability of Knight and Booker, the Jazz will have their hands full in trying to slow down the Suns guards. The Jazz have held the Suns under 90 points in both games this season, but it will be difficult to repeat that feat with the Suns recent improvements.
Braden Jenks currently lives in Phoenix. Contact him at Braden.Jenks@gmail.com.